Monday, March 05, 2012
NYT: Bankruptcy Becomes Unaffordable for Small Businesses
For the past 23 years, Chuck Benjamin has been working as a turnaround consultant, primarily for troubled private companies with annual revenues of $25 million to $250 million. During that time, his company — Benjamin Capital Advisors of Rye Brook, N.Y., and Boca Raton, Fla. — has handled some 70 cases. “My endgame is to save companies,” said Mr. Benjamin, 71, “hopefully for their owners.”
That has become much more difficult in recent years, he says, as changes in bankruptcy law have given unsecured creditors more power and made bankruptcy more expensive. These legal changes and increased costs have in turn pushed troubled companies to liquidate their assets instead of reorganizing, Mr. Benjamin said, which ends up eliminating the original owners — and many jobs — in the process. The following is a condensed version of a recent conversation.
Q. You say the bankruptcy process is broken. How so?
A. When bankruptcy evolved, it was to protect debtors, the owners. The whole concept was forgiving debts or restructuring so the business would survive in the hands of the owners. But the rules have changed over the years. Today, if they have to go into Chapter 11, the odds of the owners keeping the business are much lower. So there’s no incentive for the owners to enter Chapter 11 and reorganize. Why save a company for somebody else?
Q. What changed?
A. First, the Supreme Court’s 1999 LaSalle decision basically meant that any company that entered bankruptcy was on the market and could be bought either whole or piecemeal. And then in 2005, Congress passed the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, and that changed the face of Chapter 11 for privately held businesses. No. 1, B.A.P.C.P.A. changed the landlord’s position. It limits the time to just seven months for debtors to decide whether to accept or reject the lease in bankruptcy. It used to be you could get extended almost forever the time you could accept or reject a lease. Now they have seven months. That’s not a long time to decide which locations to close while you’re in trouble and you’re trying to work through all kinds of other issues.
The second change is exclusivity, that is, the debtor’s exclusive right to file a plan of reorganization. It used to be you had all kinds of extensions. Sometimes bankruptcies used to take two, three, four, five years. I had one that was in Chapter 11 for seven years. But it survived. Now you have 18 months where the owner has the exclusive right to file plans for reorganization. Unsecured creditors know that after 18 months they can file a plan excluding the debtor. After you’re in Chapter 11 for eight or 10 months, creditors say, “I’m just going to hang on. I’ll file my own plan and take over the company. Or after 18 months we’ll just liquidate it.”
Q. It’s hard to see anything positive about a bankruptcy that takes seven years.
A. Sometimes staying in bankruptcy a longer time was better, because it gave a debtor time to catch its breath.
Q. Who wins from this change?
A. The LaSalle decision and B.A.P.C.P.A. have given unsecured creditors a huge advantage, and the result is the cost of bankruptcy has gotten so high — because of professional and other costs — that the ability to continue the company under current ownership has reached almost zero. I understand the plight of unsecured creditors, but everyone who sells on unsecured account understands the risk. Every businessman understands this when he sells and makes a credit decision.
Q. Really? Small-business owners offer credit like this routinely. You don’t think they expect to get paid?
A. You know that old saying, “Let the buyer beware”? I think it’s every businessman’s responsibility to know to whom he sells and offers credit. If I sell to you and you begin to pay very slowly — which often happens before a bankruptcy — I should stop selling to you on credit. But if I continue to sell to you to make a buck, it’s not your fault, it’s mine.
Q. So what happens instead of reorganization these days?
A. Companies are liquidated. Back in 1983, the Lionel case allowed companies the freedom to sell off assets as opposed to filing a plan of reorganization. It expanded what could be sold in a “363 sale.” The 363 component was originally designed to allow companies to sell off spoilable product, like fruit. If you were in the grocery business and you filed bankruptcy, it allowed you to sell off assets. The Lionel case expanded that so you could sell major assets, virtually including the whole company. That’s a quick way to avoid a plan of reorganization.
Q. How does a 363 sale work?
A. The 363 sale requires nothing more than saying, “I’m going to sell you my equipment,” and I publish that, and for 30 or 40 days people have a right to object to it and the judge can decide, O.K., sell it, or if there’s a higher or better bid, it goes to the highest or best bidder. That happened in the Brunschwig & Fils bankruptcy where I was the chief restructuring officer. I sold the company’s assets for $10 million, very successful, but the original owners lost control and 116 employees lost their jobs. In the old days we would have been able to reorganize the company.
Q. How do these changes affect a troubled company’s ability to get financing during reorganization?
A. All of these changes say to the world that the chance of a company surviving bankruptcy is much lower. And if it’s much lower, the banks aren’t going to give debtor-in-possession financing — and rightfully so. The D.I.P. financer gets a priority lien. Last in, first out. But the company has to survive to have the money to pay that super-priority lien.
Q. Does this change how troubled companies act?
A. Debtors are delaying seeking help longer and longer and longer. They’re very frustrated. They’re walking in molasses. They figure if they wait another week the economy is going to turn.
Q. What should business owners do instead of filing for Chapter 11?
A. People need to seek help quicker, change their business plan quicker, and avoid Chapter 11. It’s just an absolute last resort. It’s virtually nonsurvivable. One of the things we do as consultants is take two weak companies that are facing annihilation and we merge them and we get one survivable company — without a bankruptcy. We also try to make out-of-court settlements with creditors, as opposed to Chapter 11 proceedings. In Chapter 11, the debtor pays for attorneys, accountants and consultants of the creditors’ committee. They even pay for the investment bankers. The owner is paying the other side to oppose him. It’s tilted to the unsecured creditor side.
Q. But doesn’t this law fix some biases toward debtors that allowed them to drag out the process, hurting their creditors as they did so?
A. The law probably does fix some problems, but you have to look at the nuances. There are some cases with the tighter rules where the creditors get a little more but the company fails. The other option is the bankruptcy lingers and the creditors get a little less but the company survives, and that way the creditors continue to have a customer.
Q. You’re a small-business owner yourself. How is your business doing?
A. Business right now is kind of quiet. I think this is the calm before the storm.
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Posted by James Shenwick