Making a Profit While Bankrupting the Store

Here’s a riddle. How are mattress factories and newspaper companies alike?

This piece
on the front page of today’s New York Times titled, “Profits for Buyout Firms As Company Debt Soared,” is about Simmons Bedding Company, an Atlanta mattress company that became a casualty in a string of private equity deals while the businessmen who brokered the deals profited to the tune of $750 million over the years. Meanwhile, Simmons will soon file for bankruptcy protection. A selection:

How so many people could make so much money on a company that has been driven into bankruptcy is a tale of these financial times and an example of a growing phenomenon in corporate America.

Every step along the way, the buyers put Simmons deeper in debt. The financiers borrowed more and more money to pay ever higher prices for the company, enabling each previous owner to cash out profitably.

But the load weighed down an otherwise healthy company. Today, Simmons owes $1.3 billion, compared with just $164 million in 1991, when it began to become a Wall Street version of ‘Flip This House.’

And here’s the kicker. Simmons’ private equity owner, Thomas H. Lee Partners, gave itself a raise before the company announced it would seek bankruptcy protection last month:

Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston has not only escaped unscathed, it has made a profit. The investment firm, which bought Simmons in 2003, has pocketed around $77 million in profit, even as the company’s fortunes have declined. THL collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the company in the form of special dividends. It also paid itself millions more in fees, first for buying the company, then for helping run it. Last year, the firm even gave itself a small raise.

(Check out the fantastic accompanying video package featuring Times business reporters Julie Creswell, Charles Duhigg, Andrew Ross Sorkin and Louise Story explaining how private equity sank Simmons here)

Over in the business section, this David Carr column, titled “Of Layoffs, Bankruptcy and Bonuses,” echoes the front page story. The column is about the Tribune Company’s request for $66 million in bonuses for its top managers while the company flails in bankruptcy court. Opening lines, please:

Let’s say that a group of corporate executives uses scads of debt to take over a struggling company, sells off some profitable assets, lays off thousands of employees while achieving miserable results.

And then, less than a year after saddling the company with $8 billion in debt, they opt for bankruptcy.

You’d expect them to walk the plank, or at the very least, spend a good stretch of time in the naughty corner. But you wouldn’t expect the top 700 managers to collect $66 million in bonuses.

But that’s just what might happen at the Tribune Company.

There are obvious differences between Simmons and Tribune (the digital age hasn’t made mattresses obsolete, for one) but the similarities in their demise are striking. It’s the same blueprint: Company X is driven into bankruptcy by executives who over-leverage it with debt, the management makes a profit and the little guy loses his job.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.