SEARCH SAID TO WIDEN AS BARNEYS CONSIDERS POTENTIAL PARTNERS

Byline: David Moin and Rich Wilner

NEW YORK--Whom is Barneys New York willing to dance with?
The bankrupt retailer, which has been considering potential partners to fund a reorganization plan, has reportedly been in contact with several possible investors, either directly or indirectly, among them The Limited Inc. and Holt Renfrew of Canada.
Sources cautioned, however, that any meetings Barneys might have held with prospective partners are of a preliminary nature. Barneys, which has consistently declined
comment on the question of a potential partner, has reportedly not yet opened its books to any outsiders.
While a Limited official declined comment on the reports, observers said the company has not shown any real interest in Barneys.
Last week, as reported, it was learned that London retailer Harvey Nichols had been contacted and that a meeting with Poon Dickson, who controls Harvey Nichols, is scheduled for this month. Nichols acknowledged that talks were held, but denied any interest in Barneys.
Holt Renfrew officials could not be reached for comment.
Speculation about The Limited makes sense to some people because the Columbus, Ohio-based chain has plenty of cash and could use a Barneys acquisition to fuel its four-unit Henri Bendel division.
The Limited wants to expand Bendel's to 50 stores. Bendel's has had difficulty getting designers to sell to its stores due to their commitments to other stores, including, ironically, Barneys. With Barneys under The Limited's wing, that situation could change. In addition, Barneys, with 14 regular priced stores and six outlets, could use The Limited's real estate clout to get better leases. Barneys has complained that its rents are too high in several locations.
However, sources said The Limited, already with a full plate of troubled women's businesses, doesn't want the additional headache of trying to turn around a bankrupt Barneys.
As for Holt Renfrew, sources expressed doubt that the relatively small, privately owned, Toronto-based chain would make a good fit with Barneys. Holt's annual sales are currently estimated at about $100 million to $150 million. It sells top designers, including Chanel and Giorgio Armani, and market observers consider it a smaller version of Saks Fifth Avenue.
Currently, Barneys is in an exclusivity period, meaning it has the exclusive right to present a reorganization plan to creditors, preventing others from taking over the company. Exclusivity periods are routinely extended. The company filed for bankruptcy Jan. 10.
It is believed that the Pressman family, which controls Barneys, wants a partner to help fund a reorganization plan and would jump at a cash offer if it would help the chain expand or improve operations--and allow the Pressmans to retain control.
"For Barneys to accept a cash investment offer, it would have to provide the company with the ability to accomplish a goal it would not otherwise be able to reach," said one source close to the company. "And it is going to have to be a passive investment that keeps the Pressman family in control of the business."
The source emphasized that Barneys had told its financial adviser, The Blackstone Group, not to solicit offers but to investigate all offers that were made, although there have been reports that Barneys is prospecting and that Blackstone has been in touch with foreign and domestic retailers, as well as with financial investors.
Under the bankruptcy code, debtors must explore any alternative that could lead to a higher payout to creditors. Since Barneys did not project a 100 percent cash payout to creditors in its plan of reorganization, filed on Jan. 10 along with its Chapter 11 petition, it must pursue any lead that will increase the payout to creditors.
Market observers note it would be difficult for the Pressmans to find a partner willing to sink money into the business while sitting on the sidelines.
In addition, creditors are likely to favor a "strategic" buyer, meaning a retailer with an infrastructure to consolidate Barneys and cut costs and merge office functions, rather than an investor. Creditors are likely to come out with a combination of cash, stock and/or notes in a reorganized Barneys, and consolidations via a merger with another retailer could raise Barneys' profitability and boost the value of the payout.
Barneys is projecting a $33 million positive cash flow for the year ending July 31, according to reports. Some believe that the cash flow level could allow the chain to emerge from Chapter 11 without the assistance of an outside investment.
A recent court filing shows Barneys had a $4.2 million negative cash flow in the nine weeks ended Feb. 24, which are among the slowest weeks for a retailer. The cash shortfall includes the purchase of roughly $13.9 million in spring inventory.
Barneys is scheduled to answer any questions creditors might have at a meeting set for today at 2 p.m. in the U.S. Trustee's office at 80 Broad St.

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