A crucial deadline in the Sears bankruptcy came and went Friday as the retailer’s future hangs in the balance, casting further doubt about the company’s ability to survive and placing about 50,000 workers at risk of losing their jobs.
The fate of Sears and Kmart may rest on an offer by the company’s chairman, largest investor and former CEO to acquire a smaller version of the company out of bankruptcy, including 425 stores that are still open.
Eddie Lampert’s proposal — made through his hedge fund ESL Investments — included a complex mix of new financing, previous ESL loans and the assumption of certain liabilities. ESL said the deal was worth $4.4 billion.
Sears has been evaluating the offer for the last week and needed to decide by Friday whether it would give the proposal any further consideration or turn the company over to liquidators.
CNBC reported Friday afternoon that Sears advisers have serious reservations about the offer, including the aspect that would require a federal judge to sign off on ESL’s escape from any future liability for past deals with Sears.
Lampert and ESL have come under scrutiny in the bankruptcy for multiple Sears deals in recent years, including a 2015 transaction to spin off some of the retailer’s most valuable real estate into a separate venture of which ESL is a major shareholder.
A committee of unsecured creditors in the Sears bankruptcy has called on a federal judge to examine those deals. ESL has said it structured all deals appropriately and that it ultimately helped preserve jobs.
Sears advisers had set 4 p.m. Friday as the deadline for deciding whether to give further consideration to bids for its assets. The company did not file any documents in bankruptcy court revealing its decision.
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Sears and ESL declined to comment for this story.
Sears has closed hundreds of stores in recent months, including after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in October. It announced a new round of closures late last month.
The bankruptcy came after Sears failed to adapt to digital competition, struggled to keep pace with nimble physical competitors, did not reinvest in its stores and crumbled under the weight of pension costs.
Critics say Lampert saddled the company with his own hedge fund loans instead of designing a true turnaround plan while serving as CEO. But Lampert has said he was “fighting like hell” to keep the company alive and believed his plan would accomplish a transformation.
He resigned as CEO when the company filed for bankruptcy but retained the chairmanship. At the time of the filing, he owned nearly half the company.
The company has said it’s evaluating Lampert’s offer through an independent board committee.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.