The World Of Retail Financing. Lending, Private Equity, Leasebacks And Turnarounds

Recently I had the opportunity to be part of a panel hosted by the Florida Chapter of the Commercial Finance Association (CFA), sponsored by Renaissance Partners and my friend Tom Hicks.

The tagline for the CFA is pretty clear: It’s “The Association For Professionals In The Asset-based Lending And Factoring Industry.”Now, this may sound dry as toast to some of you, but indulge me a few minutes here…because truth be told, without the companies that are part of this group, the retail industry would quite literally come to a screeching halt. And for those of you who self-identify as “laggards” – sales running below the rate of inflation, members of this group, who specialize in financing and turnaround planning for depressed companies, may make the difference between survival and your company’s end of days. That’s how important a lender or restructurer who understands retail can be.

The audience I spoke to was representative of the CFA in general:about 1/4 banks and 3/4 non-bank financial institutions. They were quite interested in learning more about the challenges and opportunities retailers face today.This understanding helps them decide who is a good risk and who is not.

The panel itself was comprised of Tom Hicks, who was our moderator, Derek McDowell of Boyne Capital, LLC (Private Equity), Steven Zuckerman of Farlie Turner & Co. (investment bankers), Andy Moser, now co-head of Monroe Capital’s Retail and Consumer Products Asset Based Lending Group, and me.

The event was a major reunion for fellow panelist Andy and me. As some of you may know, I know a bit about asset-based lending (ABL) and have talked about it often both on these pages and in my Forbes blog. I can truthfully say that just about everything I learned about ABL’s, I learned from Andy Moser. His company took over as the ABL of record back when I worked for a distressed party supply retailer in the late 90’s. At the time, he was working for another ABL. Andy knows retail really well. His current company has some other interesting financial instruments that are worth noting…but I’ll get to that a bit further down.

First: the panel.

I came away with several important takeaways. First and foremost, the people who drive the financial side of our industry are as worried about the shift to eCommerce as we all are. They recognize that we are still over-stored and there’s a real estate risk today. Interestingly (from my perspective), they view Amazon as a success story, even as they recognize the company must become more profitable soon. And they know most everyone is chasing Amazon in some form or another.

Further, in a long lunchtime conversation with Andy, I could tell that the savviest of financiers recognize that the retail industry has become so siloed that often the heads of major departments don’t have a deep understanding of their jobs and almost no understanding of the jobs of other departments. RSR has cited this data often: in merchandising for example, there’s a real dependence on technology now, without a lot of understanding of what technology can do, and there has been a major brain drain in pure merchandising talent over the years. In Andy’s opinion, we’ve focused so much on cost and promotions, we haven’t really though enough about how much a product can and should actually sell for.

The net is that when some of these financiers look at a retail enterprise, they don’t just look at sales and inventory. The first and foremost thing they focus on is the strength of the management team. While in the world of tech this often means “people who have done it before,” in the world of retail it means “a group that fully understands the dynamics of the retail industry.”

This is incredibly ironic. There was a time when every executive in retail clearly understood what the other corporate executives did. Ask RSR partner Brian Kilcourse (former CIO of Longs Drugs), for example, about the role of the Store Operator in Chain Drug, and he can give you a long and detailed explanation of that job. Ask me about the role of and goals of the head of logistics in apparel, and you’ll get a similar explanation. How many CIO’s today can say the same? And how many heads of logistics or store operations understand the real role of the CIO?

So this is a quick heads up: when you’re out looking for money to save a distressed business, make sure you’ve done your homework about the whole, not just your part of the business. Know your business’s core competency or its reason to exist, and demonstrate an understanding of what you can do to make things right.

That covers the panel discussion.

I did say I’d get back to another of Monroe Capital’s financial instruments. Along with helping distressed companies, Monroe will also help profitable companies in the middle of a significant growth spurt. I’m pretty sure they’re not the only ones who do this, but it’s an interesting concept that I hadn’t heard of.

Monroe Capital will lend money to retailers against their EBITA (earnings before interest, taxes and amortization). The opportunity here is to gain access to capital without diluting ownership before the company is ready to do so. In other words, you can leverage your earnings into growth capital. This differs a lot from asset-based loans. Asset-based loans are designed to support the purchase of product for resale. EBITDA-based loans are designed to support all kinds of growth, from store-buildouts to technology investments.I’m hoping Andy will do a guest column explaining how these instruments work in far better detail sometime in the coming months.In the meanwhile, I hope I haven’t done a disservice to what they do. It certainly made me perk up my ears. There’s help for winners, too.

We’re just starting conference season, and already I’ve had the chance to gain some rich knowledge about industry issues. I encourage everyone in retail to learn a bit about how the industry gets financed. It will help shed a light on lots of decisions that otherwise seem inscrutable.

I offer many thanks to Tom Hicks and the Florida chapter of the CFA for inviting me. I look forward to further engagement with this group in the future. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to drop a line.