The parent company of Reader’s Digest magazine recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy the second time in less than four years. The U.S. arm of Atari, the video game maker that brought the world the classic game “Pong,” also recently filed for Chapter 11.
Even though it won an Academy Award this year for best visual effects for “Life of Pi,” the visual effects company Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy.
Despite these high profile filings, the American Bankruptcy Institute recently reported that commercial Chapter 11 bankruptcies actually fell a whopping 36 percent from January 2012 to January 2013, from 749 to 479.
Although the decrease in bankruptcy filings may be partly a result of the slowly improving economy, it’s also due to the fact that companies are increasingly looking to alternatives to filing bankruptcy. It’s no longer assumed to be the leading default option for companies in financial distress.
In my work as the Turnaround Authority, I generally discourage my clients from declaring bankruptcy. While bankruptcy does offer several tools that may not otherwise be available, such as the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and claims, and the ability to accept and reject contracts, I want companies to carefully consider the downsides to bankruptcy before making that move. Here are just a few I want them to consider.
It results in loss of control. While the client may still be running the daily operations, he is no longer in control of the major decisions. The judge approves all major decisions.
It’s expensive. High attorney fees can actually result in businesses being forced to liquidate to pay all the fees. Fees in excess of $1 million dollars are not uncommon. Companies have paid in excess of $1,000 an hour during a bankruptcy reorganization.
In addition to paying for its own lawyers and financial advisors, the company has to pay those of the creditors’ committee and the secured lenders.
The law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges was lead counsel for the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, raking in $389 million in fees and expenses in 3 ½ years. But that wasn’t all of it. The total paid out to all of the firms on Lehman’s tab? More than $1.4 billion.
An interim CEO or Chief Restructuring Officer, like me, may be brought in to handle the process, which adds another layer of costs.
It harms the company’s reputation and may discourage future investments. Just a rumor about the impending filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by American Airlines parent company AMR caused the shares of stock to plummet by a third and 67 million frequent flyer members fretted over what would happen to their miles.
Owners and stockholders may lose a great deal of money. The bankruptcy court determines the order in which creditors are paid back, with secured creditors first in line. Stockholders are always at the back of the line and generally need to invest additional funds into the restructured entity in order to maintain equity in the new company.
The actions of the firm’s leadership are closely examined and may lead to criminal charges. After Enron filed for bankruptcy, dozens of its executives were subsequently charged with criminal acts that included insider trading, money laundering and fraud.
I tell this story in my new book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOS’ Mistakes.” I was brought in as an interim CEO for a company that had filed for Chapter 11. On its books was $50 million of inventory at a plant in Ireland. I decided to go take a look. Turns out the plant was actually a vacant lot, but had been claimed as inventory to inflate the value of the company so it could qualify for a larger loan than it would have.
Few companies emerge intact. Less than 10 percent of companies filing for bankruptcy protection emerge as they were when they filed. Generally, assets, divisions, or the entire company are sold to provide the funds to work out a Plan of Reorganization.
Bankruptcy is a viable and helpful alternative for some companies. I’ve worked with many over the years and was successful in bringing them out of bankruptcy. But it’s difficult and takes time and money. It’s not the best tool for every company and alternatives should be carefully considered.