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Furniture Brands, which cut 8,000 NC jobs in 12 years, files for Chapter 11

By Richard Craver
Winston-Salem Journal

Furniture Brands International Inc., once the nation’s dominant home-furnishings manufacturer with more than 8,000 North Carolina employees, filed Monday for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The St. Louis company, which has three major divisions in North Carolina, plans to sell all of its businesses outside Lane Furniture to a private-equity group managed by Oaktree Capital Management LP.

Oaktree has committed to providing $140 million in debtor-in-possession financing, including $50 million of new liquidity.

The sale is expected to go through an auction process, at which time there could be other bidders for the Furniture Brands assets. The company said it has received interest from potential acquirers for the Lane division.

“The new facility, which is subject to court approval, will enable the company to operate business uninterrupted and continue to meet its financial obligations, including the timely payment of employee wages and benefits, continued servicing of customer orders and shipments, and other obligations.”

The company was in the early 2000s the largest U.S. furniture manufacturer at $2.2 billion in annual sales, primarily from divisions Broyhill Furniture Industries Inc., HDM Furniture Industries Inc. and Thomasville Furniture Industries Inc.

But it had seen eight years of revenue declines, according to John Baugh, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. “We believe 2013 will be another down year,” he said.

The company reported a $40 million loss in the second quarter.

“After careful consideration of a range of alternatives, we firmly believe that our Chapter 11 process represents the best long-term solution for Furniture Brands to address its liquidity challenges, strengthen its operations and continue to provide our customers with the highest-quality products and service that they have come to expect from us,” said Ralph Scozzafava, the company’s chairman and chief executive.

The deal, if approved, would expand Oaktree’s already major industry presence.

The company, along with Bain Capital, formed International Market Centers LP in May 2011 as part of a $1 billion strategic gamble to unify the main showroom buildings at the High Point and Las Vegas markets.

Tom Conley, president of the High Point Market Authority, said it is likely that a different part of Oaktree is providing the financing to Furniture Brands than owns the High Point and Las Vegas building properties.

In the past 12 years, Furniture Brands has eliminated at least 8,860 jobs in North Carolina in pursuit of lower labor costs in Asia that have not contributed to increased sales.

Scozzafava told analysts in August that the company had conducted “a thorough review of our portfolio of assets with our board, and outside advisers are in the process of executing on specific initiatives that were the output of this review. These include possible sales of non-core or underperforming assets.”

The company ended the quarter with a cash balance of $8.8 million and debt of $117.7 million.

One probable consequence of the Chapter 11 filing could be Furniture Brands requesting that the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. take over more than $200 million in pension obligations for about 20,000 participants, many of whom live in the Hickory and Triad area.

Baugh said asset sales are complicated by the fact that the pension is underfunded by about $200 million, and it will no doubt want to get paid in front of the other creditors, which can likely only be resolved via the bankruptcy process.

Even though Furniture Brands said it plans to contribute between $6 million and $6.5 million to its pension plan this year, Scozzafava acknowledged to analysts that “we’ve got a large underfunded pension obligation.” The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insures pensions and assumes responsibility for plans that can no longer pay benefits. Its maximum benefit guarantee is set each year under provisions of ERISA.

The maximum guarantee applicable to a plan is fixed as of that plan’s termination date except for cases where termination occurs during a plan sponsor’s bankruptcy, in which case the maximum guarantee may be fixed as of the date the sponsor entered bankruptcy. For 2013, the maximum guaranteed amount is $4,789.77 per month for workers who begin receiving payments from PBGC at age 65.

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