“More than a dozen THL professionals have devoted literally thousands of man-hours to Simmons, including making over 115 visits to company headquarters and site facilities around the country,” the firm said in a statement.
The results, it argued, speak for themselves. In the following years, Simmons’s sales and profits climbed, and the company introduced several new products, including the successful premium-price Beautyrest Black line of mattresses.
By early 2007, at the very top of the credit market bubble, THL took a bit more out of Simmons. It created a holding company that it used to issue $300 million more in debt, which paid an additional $238 million dividend to the private equity firm. With that, THL had recouped its entire $327 million equity investment in Simmons and booked a profit of around $48 million. (It made an additional $28.5 million in various fees over the years.)
THL was hardly alone in undertaking this sort of financial engineering, known as a dividend recapitalization. From 2003 to 2007, 188 companies controlled by private equity firms issued more than $75 billion in debt that was used to pay dividends to the buyout firms.
Asked whether the 2007 dividend was too much for Simmons, Mr. Schoen of THL defended the deal.
“That debt financing, which clearly spelled out to the market the use of the proceeds, was extremely well received. The securities were heavily oversubscribed,” Mr. Schoen said. “Not only did we think it was appropriate, but the market did as well,” he added.
As the economy soured in late 2007, so did Simmons’s sales. The company slashed costs and cut jobs throughout 2008. But last fall, unable to meet the terms of its bank loans and debt dating back to the 2003 acquisition itself, Simmons stopped making interest payments to its bondholders. THL began talking to the banks and bondholders about how to lighten Simmons’s debt load, and put the company up for sale.
The Impact on Employees
From the start, Noble Rogers loved working at Simmons.
“There were picnics, March of Dimes walks, Christmas parties, and we always had Halloween parties. It was a really family-oriented company,” Mr. Rogers, 50, recalled. “I told my wife that this was a great place for me to work. A great place for me to retire, to make a living at.”
For a long time, it was. For 22 years, Mr. Rogers worked at Simmons, the bulk of those years at a factory in Mableton, outside Atlanta. After operating the coiler machine for the company’s Beautyrest mattress, he moved into maintenance and kept all of the plant’s machinery humming.
Over the years, as Simmons passed from one private equity firm to another, and as Mr. Rogers became president of the local union at the plant, he saw little difference on the plant floor. Then, in the spring of 2008, when the slowing economy had begun to hurt sales, Simmons laid off the night shift at the Mableton plant. And on Sept. 18 that year, it gathered employees in the cafeteria to say that the plant was closing.
“So many people were hurt because they thought this was a great company to work for and they planned on spending the rest of their lives here. Their families were here. They bought houses and cars here,” Mr. Rogers recalled. “After this happened, people were really struggling.”
Between the closings and other cuts, Simmons let go of more than a quarter of its work force last year, said its chief financial officer, William S. Creekmuir.
Mr. Rogers, who received his union-negotiated severance package of two months’ pay, said he and other union representatives had tried to get a little more for workers, particularly those who would have been eligible for retirement. Simmons had a long history of giving retiring employees a bonus of $20 for each year worked and a free mattress set, Mr. Rogers said.
“They wouldn’t give us anything,” he said.
In the months after he lost his job, Mr. Rogers nearly lost his home to foreclosure and struggled to pay his family’s bills. Mr. Rogers, who eventually landed a job at an air filter company and picked up part-time work doing maintenance at an apartment complex, said Simmons bore little resemblance to the company he once loved.
“They stopped the picnics. They stopped the Christmas parties. They stopped the retirement parties,” he recalled. “That showed you the type of people I was working for. I just didn’t realize it until the hard times came like they did.”
For now, the Golden Age of private equity is over, the financiers say. In a speech to an industry gathering last spring. Mr. Schoen said that bankers and bondholders were reluctant to lend more money to the buyout kings.
“We’re in a brave new world,” he said. “We can’t go back to where we were, at least not in this investment cycle, and probably not in my career.”
But some private equity investors are searching for profits in the detritus of the buyout bust. Simmons hopes to emerge from bankruptcy in the hands of two new private equity firms. One is Ares Management, which owns the mattress giant Serta. Under the plan, Simmons’s debt would be more than halved, to $450 million, in part reflecting the losses suffered by its existing bondholders.
Simmons and its remaining employees face an uncertain future. Some in the industry predict Ares will eventually merge at least part of Simmons with Serta, jeopardizing more jobs.
“Simmons has been a cash cow. It’s made a lot of people a lot of money,” said David Perry, executive editor of Furniture/Today. “But there’s a growing question in the industry of how many more times can this be repeated. How much more juice can be squeezed out of the orange?”