In pandemic era, private equity-owned retail is as vulnerable as ever

The following is an update to Retail Dive’s 2018 series on private equity[1] investment in the retail industry. The original project tracked more than 120 acquisitions going back to 2002 and analyzed data provided by PitchBook, Debtwire,[2], Moody’s and other sources, including Retail Dive’s own research.

Combine two leveraged buyouts with $5 billion in debt. Add a pandemic. Stir. 

If anyone, for whatever reason, were in need of a recipe for retail bankruptcy, the above is as good as any. It was enough to send Neiman Marcus into court to seek relief. Two private equity buyouts, funded by billions in debt, led to years of distress and ultimately bankruptcy this year[3]

J. Crew, acquired by Leonard Green and partners for $3 billion in 2011, is another that hovered at the brink for years, cutting deals with lenders to buy time until, finally, the pandemic derailed its latest plan to ease its balance sheet

So far at least, 2020 is not the year of mass bankruptcies among private equity retailers, but many are struggling and many others already collapsed in years past. Seven of the 19 major retail bankruptcies tracked by Retail Dive as of July 9 were private equity-owned at the time that they filed. By comparison, in years past, private equity-owned retailers made up a majority of retail bankruptcies. [4]

Private equity-owned retailers that filed for bankruptcy in 2020
RetailerPE owner
Centric BrandsTengram Capital Partners
Neiman MarcusAres Capital
J. CrewLeonard Green & Partners
True ReligionTowerBrook Capital Partners*
Art Van FurnitureThomas H. Lee Partners
Lucky BrandLeonard Green & Partners
Sur La TableInvestcorp

Source: Retail Dive research and analysis of data provided by Pitchbook, Acuris in 2018. *TowerBrook lost its majority stake in True Religion after the retailer’s first Chapter 11 in 2017.

Past years saw similarly high numbers of Chapter 11s among private equity-backed retailers. Toys R Us. Payless ShoeSource. Gymboree. Brookstone. H.H. Gregg. Nine West. The Limited. Charlotte Russe. Shopko. The list goes on. Dozens of retailers — burdened by debt from leveraged buyouts and left vulnerable as retail modernized and competed fiercely with online and discount players — have filed, many of them liquidating their physical presence.[5]

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