Sears wins reprieve from liquidation as Chairman Lampert makes last-minute $4.4 billion bid on bankrupt company

By Lauren Hirsch

In this Nov. 17, 2004 file photo, Kmart chairman Edward Lampert listens during a news conference to announce the merger of Kmart and Sears in New York.
In this Nov. 17, 2004 file photo, Kmart chairman Edward Lampert listens during a news conference to announce the merger of Kmart and Sears in New York.

Department store chain Sears won a reprieve from liquidating Friday after its chairman, Eddie Lampert, submitted a $4.4 billion bid in an effort to buy the retailer and keep it alive.

Lampert's hedge fund, ESL Investments, put forward the tentative proposal for the parent of Kmart and Sears earlier this month, with his formal submission due today. The offer came just in time to meet the 4:00 p.m. deadline, CNBC first reported.

Friday's offer, which Lampert submitted through an ESL affiliate, Transform Holdco, is for 425 of Sears' stores. To fund the bid, it has a $1.3 billion financing commitment from investment banks, a spokesperson for ESL said in a Friday statement.

The bid would "offer employment to up to 50,000 associates," the spokesperson for ESL said, cautioning, though, that it would depend on "further actions the company may take between now and closing." It would also reinstate severance protections for "eligible employees."

The bid may help divert liquidation, but may not necessarily. Sears' advisors have until Jan. 4 to decide whether ESL is a "qualified bidder." Only then could ESL take part in an auction against liquidation bids on Jan. 14. They will weigh the value of Lampert's bid against offers to liquidate the company.

The full structure of Lampert's bid could not immediately be determined, but will be made public in coming days. If it is similar to the $4.6 billion proposal he outlined earlier this month, it is likely to face pushback from the company's unsecured creditors. As part of the initial bid, which regulators required Lampert to make public, financing would in part stem from $1.8 billion in debt that Lampert would forgive through a so-called "credit bid."

Unsecured creditors said earlier this month they will object to a credit bid. Those creditors believe there may be claims against Sears for transactions under Lampert's leadership. Those deals include Sears' spinoff of Lands' End and transactions with Seritage Growth Properties, a real estate investment trust Lampert created through some Sears' properties.

Sears declined to comment to CNBC for this story.

The company filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 15. At that time, it said it would close 142 unprofitable stores, then in November it announced the closure of 40 additional stores. On Friday, it disclosed plans to close 80 more stores, bringing the total closures to more than 260, or more than a third of its 700 or so stores.The 125-year-old company has more than 68,000 employees.

Once the nation's biggest retailer, it was also its first "everything store," stocking wares from jewelry to clothing, from hardware to prefabricated homes. But the department store industry has struggled over the past half-decade, as the mall has become less convenient and apparel more casual. Rival J.C. Penney has also felt the pressure; on Wednesday its shares dipped below $1 for the first time.