The pressure is on at Aéropostale Inc., where sourcing giant Li & Fung is said to have tightened terms on the struggling retailer and is requiring cash up front for shipments.
That change in terms is significant since retailers usually have a month or two to try to sell goods before they need to pay their vendors. The extra financial burden strengthens the hand of Stefan Kaluzny’s Sycamore Partners, which has positioned itself as both a key lender and an important supplier to the retailer.
Representatives for Li & Fung, Sycamore and Aéropostale all declined to comment.
Aéropostale is in the midst of exploring its options — hoping for a buyer or to find some other way to charge ahead — and the stock is bouncing around looking for direction. After falling dramatically last month, the firm’s stock shot up 10 cents to 32 cents Monday with more than 10 million shares trading hands. This is well ahead of the 1.8 million daily average for the past three months.
Much of Aéropostale’s future seems to depend on Sycamore.
Through an affiliate, the private-equity firm loaned Aéropostale $150 million in 2014 and inked a sourcing agreement that guaranteed the retailer would buy between $240 million and $280 million in goods annually from Sycamore’s MGF sourcing arm. The 10-year deal started this quarter and has already gone off the rails, with MGF no longer shipping goods to the retailer. Aéropostale has said MGF is in violation of its agreement (a claim the production company denies) and that its first-quarter adjusted operating losses could be negatively impacted by up to $8 million if shipping delays from the dispute continue.
Aéropostale represents an unusual situation, with Sycamore — which has taken control of a string of troubled companies, including Hot Topic, Talbots and Jones Apparel Group — both a lender to and a supplier to the company. But it’s in keeping with the broader positioning of Kaluzny, who has built a retailer powerhouse and started by buying Mast Global Fashions from Limited Brands Inc., later renaming the business MGF.
Kaluzny is known for being an aggressive negotiator and one banker familiar with him, when asked whether his move at Aéropostale made him look ultra tough or smart, said the answer was: “Both. That was a loan to own.”
As of the end of January, Aéropostale had $65.1 million in cash and short-term debt payments of just $5 million with no borrowings under its revolving credit facility. Still, market observers and analysts see it in a dire position.
The 810-door chain has struggled in recent years to get its formula right and most recently has split itself into two parts. Sixty percent of its stores have been converted to a factory concept that offers a narrow and deep assortment of basics. The balance of the fleet goes after the more fashion-forward mall shopper.
Chief executive officer Julian Geiger said last month the early read was promising.
After Aéropostale inked its sourcing arrangement with Sycamore, it tried to blunt the vendor’s influence by inking a decade-long deal with Li & Fung which, as Geiger told investors, would “foster greater competition among our sourcing partners.”
“Having MGF and Li & Fung in place, I think, puts us in an absolutely perfect position to be getting — consistently getting great prices,” the ceo said in March 2015.
Now the company is searching for strategic options, but has yet to come up with many.
If it were to file for bankruptcy, Aéropostale could try to deny Kaluzny control of the company by arguing in court that Sycamore, by being so involved, was acting as more than a debt holder and should therefore be included with the unsecured creditors when pay back is given.
But as with almost everything at Aéropostale right now, it’s unclear just how that would pan out.