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'Devastated': The last days of Toys 'R' Us

Bloomberg
March 17. 2018 11:12PM

Jaycen Shepherd was excited to go to Toys “R” Us with his parents, Jenna and David, last week in Manchester. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)



You want a trip to Toys "R" Us, head office of Geoffrey the Giraffe, to feel like a visit to a sugarplum Toyland.

But the mood is black these days inside One Geoffrey Way in Wayne, N.J., spiritual home of the cartoon mascot who's been beckoning to kids for generations.

Shortly after 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Dave Brandon, chief executive officer of the iconic toy chain, delivered the news that his more than 30,000 U.S. workers had been dreading: We're finished. After 70 years, Toys "R" Us would close shop - a casualty of Amazon-era retailing and debt-fueled, private-equity deal-making.

"I am devastated that we have reached this point," Brandon told a group of about 600 employees. "I truly believe we did our best, under what turned out to be nearly impossible circumstances." He choked up as he spoke.

How did it come to this? The answer, as with most bankruptcies, is slowly, and then all at once. In the pre-internet dark age, the company was the unrivaled supermarket of toys, the arbiter of fads and tastes that shaped the entire industry. Its advertising jingle - "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys 'R' Us kid" - is lodged in the brains of millions.

But by last September, just months before the crucial holiday season, relentless competition from Amazon.com and Walmart - combined with more than $5 billion in debt from a 2005 leveraged buyout - had finally overwhelmed the chain. With little warning, it filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, in the hope, Brandon said at the time, of emerging better than ever.

Instead, his hopeful plans unraveled at a startling clip. Battles quickly broke out between management and long-time creditors, who were owed about $5 billion at the time of the filing. Lenders soon were urging Brandon to shut hundreds of the 800 U.S. stores fast to contain the damage. (The company's New Hampshire stores are in Manchester, Concord, Nashua, Newington and Salem.)

Before long, vendors were growing wary about shipping toys to the chain, fearing they might not get paid.

The financial powers behind Toys "R" Us - among them KKR & Co., Bain Capital and Vornado Realty Trust - had all but given up by then. After earning more than $470 million in fees and interest payments while taking no dividends, according to regulatory filings, they'd abandoned hopes of flipping Toys "R" Us back onto the stock market in 2013 for the ultimate payoff. The only thing to do, it seemed, was to keep cutting costs and, hopefully, negotiate easier terms on all that debt.

On one level, the announced liquidation (at least in the U.S.) is yet another familiar story about the sorry state of old-school retailing. On another, it's a tale of how private equity has, in many cases, worsened the industry's upheavals. Sports Authority, Gymboree, Payless Shoesource, Claire's, J. Crew: All these chains, and more, have struggled to adapt to the fast-changing landscape after being taken private.

With Toys "R" Us in Chapter 11, the company declined to comment. Representatives of the owners also declined to comment or didn't respond to requests for comment.

Bondholders have seen the value of their investment plummet. The company's senior unsecured bonds due in 2018 last traded Thursday at 5.25 cents on the dollar, down from 72 cents the week before the bankruptcy filing, according to Trace bond-price data.

Almost from the start, sharp lines were drawn, according to people involved in the bankruptcy process. After the September filing, creditors - including holders of some $3 billion in bankruptcy financing - complained that Toys "R" Us was being less than forthcoming about its financials, as well as its turnaround strategy. Six months after the filing, the company had no bankruptcy-exit plan in place, and lenders were losing faith.

The lenders, including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, jockeyed to provide debtor-in-possession loans, which are first in line to get repaid. Then a group of hedge funds threatened in October to trigger a default on these loans until they got a $30 million piece of them. Others argued over the valuations of various international subsidiaries and assets, such as intellectual property and the growing Asian business.

Then came Black Friday, the crucial kickoff to the U.S. holiday shopping season. The Christmas run-up turned into a disaster for Toys "R" Us. Brandon later complained that the September bankruptcy had shaken customers' confidence. But there were other problems: The slow pace of negotiations was unnerving vendors and prompting creditors to urge more store closings.

By early February, vendors had learned what Brandon already knew: The holiday season had delivered a blow, with sales plunging about 15 percent from the previous year.

Brandon's initial optimism was fading. In a Jan. 23 letter to employees, he blamed the holiday showing on the bankruptcy, as well as some operational missteps.

But beyond picking executives, the private-equity owners generally took a hands-off approach, people familiar with the matter say. Toys "R" Us, meantime, was left to pay more than $400 million a year in interest alone on its debts.

By February, some senior-most lenders began to push for an outright liquidation. And, with that, 70 years of retail history slid toward an ignominious end.

Prospects could be buoyed by a group of toymakers who said Wednesday they're looking to make a bid for the company's Canadian business, through which they would buy some U.S. locations in the liquidation to operate as a subsidiary. Other potential liquidation bidders have begun to crop up as well.

On Thursday, at the Toys "R" Us Express on 33rd Street in Midtown Manhattan, Angela Milligan, 28, and Chace Douglas, 25, were looking for bankruptcy bargains (no liquidation markdowns yet). Other customers waxed nostalgic.

"We grew up with it," said John Park, 39. "My kids aren't going to experience a place where there's just shelves of toys."


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