NEW YORK – Private-equity firms have waited for this moment: Mike Jeffries is no longer in the retailing business.
The controversial chief executive of Abercrombie & Fitch Co. retired Tuesday, clearing the way for any suitors interested in the teen retailer. Jeffries, 70, was long seen as an obstacle to a takeover. At least one buyout firm considered a deal before walking away over concerns about his leadership, a source said in 2012. For buyers wanting to take another look, the stock is just as cheap now.
As the $2 billion chain has lost appeal among teens, Abercrombie’s stock price has also deflated and even attracted activist shareholders including Ralph Whitworth. It’s been mentioned by retail analysts as a top leveraged-buyout candidate in recent years because the business generates cash, has a valuable brand and needs some sprucing up —hallmarks of LBO targets. With private-equity firms having amassed a record amount of dry powder this year, Jeffries’ departure could be the final ingredient needed to forge a deal.
“He was a big obstacle to getting a transaction done, so this definitely further helps clear the way for an event to occur,” Pamela Quintiliano, a New York-based analyst for SunTrust Banks Inc., said in a phone interview. “There’s lots of things to do here to fix the situation and things that could be appealing to private equity.”
Monday the stock fell to its lowest level since 2009. After gaining 7.7 percent Tuesday to $28.37 at 1:52 p.m. New York time, it’s still a losing investment this year.
Abercrombie is valued at 6.6 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, a lower multiple than the majority of its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Even when the stock was higher earlier this year, Abercrombie offered financial buyers the best internal rate of return — at 21 percent — among more than 20 specialty retailers, according to a hypothetical LBO analysis in June by Randal Konik, an analyst for Jefferies Group LLC. His assumptions included a 30 percent premium, or almost $55 a share for Abercrombie at the time, and a minimum equity contribution of 25 percent, with all the company’s free cash flow used to pay down the debt portion.