Greed is not good

There’s an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle highlighting the economic downturn that the retail sector will face in 2009. After years of aggressive expansion fueled by easy debt and plastic-wielding customers, the industry is in for a major correction in 2009, analysts predict, the article begins and then goes on to detail the bankruptcies of chains such as Mervyns, Sharper Image, and Circuit City.

But there’s an important element missing from this article, particularly in the case of Mervyns, a 59 year old company, originally based in Hayward, and that is the role of private equity firms and leveraged buyouts.

Business Week recently detailed the sad story of Mervyns, but in essence, these firms bought Mervyns, purportedly with the intent of saving the company. Instead they split the company into two entities, shifting all the debt to one, all the valuable real estate holdings to the other. The real estate arm then began raising the rents on the debt-laden retail arm, helping drive it into bankruptcy. Who’s left out in the cold? Mervyns’ employees, shareholders, and customers.

The retail sector is not the only target of these greed merchants. There are parallels between the Mervyns story and Malcolm Glazer’s leveraged buyout of Manchester United, whereupon most of the debt he incurred buying ManUre was promptly shift to the club’s own books. Then it was revealed Glazer planned to raise ticket prices by as much as 54% within 5 years.

Now as a loyal Arsenal supporter, it couldn’t happen to a nicer group of supporters. But for Malcolm Glazer, who’s worth $2.5 billion, and for the private equity firms, who put long-time Meryns’ employees like Steve Sunyog (19 years with the company), Jeff Rainey (28 years) and Loretta Robinson (32 years) out of work, I have to ask the obvious question… how much #@$%& money is enough?