Daily Journal

BALDWYN – Even though Doyce Deas no longer has any financial stake in Hancock Fabrics, she is disappointed, even a bit angry that the company her father founded is liquidating.

“It’s so sad,” she said. “There are 4,500 jobs that will be lost. Ironically, it was dad who sold the company in order to save jobs. ... and now look what’s happened.”

Her father, L.D. Hancock, founded what was Hancock Textile Co. in 1957. He sold the company in 1972 to Lucky Stores. The company acquired Minnesota Fabrics and in 1987, it was spun off to shareholders and listed on the New York Stock Exchange as Hancock Fabrics.

By the time it filed for Chapter 11 in February – its second filing since 2007 – Hancock shares were trading over the counter and worth about a penny each.

Deas said even though no family member has ties to the company anymore, the family name is still associated with the company.

She said bad management over the years contributed to its demise, not the plan her father had envisioned.

When L.D. Hancock sold the company to Lucky Star, he was trying to ensure the future of the company and its workers, Deas said.

“He knew that a lot of people and a lot of families depended on their jobs with the company,” she said. “He was worried what would happen to them if something happened to him. He wanted to make sure the company was financially solid in order to protect them.”

Forty-four years after that sale, Hancock Fabrics – or rather the company that bought its assets in a bankruptcy auction last week – has begun a liquidation of the company. Within weeks, 255 stores will be closed forever.

Great American Group of California had already been tasked with closing 70 under-performing stores Hancock had identified during its Chapter 11 filing in February. It had a back-up bid for the remaining 185 stores, and since no other bids were submitted, Great American’s bid was approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware.

“Our team has worked closed with Hancock Fabrics in a range of capacities over the years,” said Scott Carpenter, president of Great American’s Retail Solutions division. “Now our task will be discounting all of the merchandise in the stores unit it is completely liquidated. ... We expect the going-out-of-business sales to last several weeks before all of the merchandise is sold in the remaining locations.”

Hancock’s liquidation also means its massive facility in the Harry A. Martin North Lee Industrial Park in Baldwyn will be shuttered.

The Community Development Foundation, which oversees economic development efforts in Lee County, will be looking for somebody to fill that void.

The facility includes 650,000 square feet of warehouse space, a 28,000-square-foot fixtures manufacturing space and an 80,000-square-foot, two-story office building that served as the company’s headquarters.

David Rumbarger, the CDF’s president and CEO, said it is an opportunity as well as a challenge to market a dual facility that size. Some companies are merely looking for warehouse space, not necessarily with a large office attached.

“But we faced a similar issue when Lane Furniture closed in Verona, and it was filled by United Furniture ... so there’s precedent,” Rumbarger said. “We just have to work through the red tape that’s involved.”

With the fire of enthusiasm, Rumbarger added, “Out of the ashes, something good will be resurrected.”

Rising then falling

L.D. Hancock sold the business in 1972 for $50 million, and the company initially did grow as he had hoped. The company began moving from mall locations to standalone locations and smaller strip centers, and it acquired other companies as well.

By the early 1990s, the company had expanded to 500 stores in 40 states.

But there were signs of stress, with competition coming for all sides – Jo-Ann Fabrics, Michael’s, Kirkland’s and Hobby Lobby to name a few of the retailers who were casting nets for a similar customer base.

Prior to its Chapter 11 filing in 2007, Hancock Fabrics’ last major restructuring involved remodeling most of its stores as well as moving some and closing others. The net result was 70 fewer stores from the company’s peak of 500 in 1994 to 430 by 2002. But annual sales grew in seven of the 10 years from 1995 to 2004.

Company officials were optimistic about growing the business to 600 stores. That was one of the primary reasons Hancock moved to its new $18 million corporate headquarters, warehouse and distribution center in Baldwyn.

But trouble was brewing.

After posting a combined $19.8 million in profit for fiscal years 2003 and 2004, Hancock lost $15.6 million in FY2005. The next year, the company went deeper in the red, posting a $32.7 million loss.

In January 2006, Hancock said it would close 50 stores; eventually 42 were shuttered. A year later, the company said it would close 30 stores, then on March 21, 2007, it said it would close another 104 stores. A day later, the company filed for Chapter 11. That fiscal year, it lost another $24.3 million.

There was hope that Hancock would emerge a leaner and more competitive company after it exited Chapter 11 in August 2008. It had shed 140 stores – with Great American handling the liquidation of those locations.

While sales remained flat at about $276 million during FY2008, Hancock posted a narrower loss – $12.4 million. The next year looked promising as it turned a profit of $1.8 million – it’s first profit in five years. But that momentum was fleeting, as the lingering effects of the Great Recession continued to pressure the company’s tenuous financial position.

The craft and sewing business had changed, and Hancock expanded its home decor selection, even adding some furniture.

Sales held relatively stable around the $275 million mark, but profit margins fell as merchandise was sold at deeply discounted prices.

And losses continued to mount. The company lost about $35 million from FY2010-FY2014.

The company began a store renovation program in late 2012/early 2013, with two formats in mind: A fabrics-centered store simply called Hancock Fabrics, and another format that included the expanded assortment of merchandise. Those stores were branded Hancock Fabrics Crafts & More.

It was deemed a “back-to-basics” move by company officials.

But Hancock was able to renovate only a handful of stores at a time, not enough to push the needle in its favor as far as sales and profitability.

Crushing debt

Then last December, in an SEC filing, Hancock warned of an impending cash crunch.

The company had posted another quarterly net loss of $3.6 million, compared to a loss of $800,000 a year earlier.

For the first three quarters of its fiscal year, Hancock accumulated a net loss of $12.7 million. For the same period a year earlier, Hancock’s net losses totaled $4.6 million.

As of the end of October, Hancock had long-term debt and capital lease obligations of $101.6 million. That figure was $52.3 million on Jan. 28, 2012.

Said Hancock at the time, “As a consequence of our significant amount of indebtedness as of Oct. 31, 2015, a significant portion of our cash flow from operations must be dedicated to interest and principal payments on our indebtedness, thereby reducing the availability of our cash flow to fund capital expenditures or other growth initiatives and other general corporate requirements.”

Having to rely on bank borrowings since 2011 and with its debt load growing, its pension under-funded by more than $40 million and creditors adding pressure, Hancock filed for Chapter 11 on Feb. 2 of this year.

Company leaders said Hancock had some $183 million in liabilities and only $151 million in assets.

After the filing, company President and CEO Steve Morgan, who had been in those positions since October 2011, said the restructuring was a positive step for the future of Hancock Fabrics.

“We are committed to providing our customers quality fabrics and crafting essentials, both online and in stores,” he said. “We value our relationships with our vendors and appreciate their support throughout this process. We will continue to offer the same unparalleled service for which the company has been known since its founding in 1957.”

But Hancock will not survive to see a 60th year.

Without another bidder from which to choose, the bankruptcy court had little choice but to select Great American’s offer.

It should be noted that a sister company of Great American has provided financing to Hancock prior to its Chapter 11 filing, but the court dismissed any concerns over improper behavior of any party involved in the bidding process.

That brings little solace to the 4,500 full- and part-time workers who were employed by Hancock before the filing.

For some, Hancock has been the only company where they’ve worked.

“It’s a sad day for a great company,” said David Jensen, a former vice president of human resources for Hancock, who joined the company in 1985 with Minnesota Fabrics. “My thoughts are with those people that worked for so long and loved working for the company.”

Twitter: @dennisseid

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