Giving Meshulam Riklis control of a company is like giving an old salt a load of fish to clean. Both of them eviscerate their catch with such artistry that you have to admire the spectacle, bloody though it is.
Riklis, who at the age of 66 has been gutting corporations for more than 30 years, is now in the process of undercutting the bondholders of two companies at once -- bondholders who have watched $2 billion of their money disappear. He is also putting the jobs of many of his empire's 30,000-plus employees at risk by playing with his businesses rather than building them.
The bonds now sell for about $1.3 billion less than their original cost. But weep not for Riklis, best known as being Mr. Pia Zadora, husband of the Hollywood personality. The bondholders get fish offal; Riklis takes home fancy filets: more than $50 million in the past two years, by my count. I have to estimate because Riklis won't talk to me. The person who answered his phone said he was in a meeting -- probably the same meeting he's been in since I started calling him in 1984.
Before we get into the gory details, a note. I'm not saying that Riklis has broken any laws or that anything described in this column is illegal. Just greedy.
Let's start with a look at something called McCrory Parent Corp., which operates the McCrory and Newberry department store chains, among others. It has more than 1,000 outlets in 40 states and the District of Columbia. Some 26,000 people work in these stores, and they have to wonder if the chain is coming up to its last Christmas outside of bankruptcy court.
Like a cash cow run dry, McCrory has begun consuming money instead of producing it. By my count, the company is running a cash deficit of $80 million to $100 million a year. That's because the company played financial games for years instead of keeping up with the Wal-Marts and K marts of the world.
McCrory Parent bonds, which include some $750 million of McCrory and Rapid-American issues, trade as if the company will soon renege on its debts. For instance, the McCrory 15 3/4 percent bonds due in July of 1991 are trading at between a quarter and a third of their face value. If the bonds pay their interest and principal when due, you would more than triple your money in eight months. Don't bet on it.
Riklis boasts of never having missed an interest payment. But McCrory is in dreadful shape, and Riklis has been known to offer investors new, trashy securities in exchange for his existing, trashy securities. You can bet he'll try this trick soon -- if he doesn't tank McCrory first.
McCrory would be in even worse shape if Riklis hadn't unloaded its 229-store Bargain Time discount chain, which Riklis started last year by converting some 229 stores to Bargain Times. The chain was a disaster. Whose money did Bargain Time burn up? Riklis's? Pia's? Of course not. He arranged to sell it to another company he controlled, E-II Holdings.
I won't bore you with the history of E-II, which started out as a takeover vehicle for would-be corporate raiders but ended up in Riklis's clutches in July 1988. All you need to know is that when Riklis got control, E-II had lots of cash and $1.5 billion of fairly credible bonds outstanding. Now it has very little cash, and the bonds are worth little more than fish wrap.
The asset-passing and paper-shuffling included having E-II buy Bargain Time from McCrory in return for canceling $170 million of the debt McCrory owed E-II. Guess what? In July, six months after buying Bargain Time, E-II announced it was closing the chain and taking a $216.3 million loss.
Only massive assistance from E-II has kept McCrory going. By my count, in the last two years E-II has poured $585 million of cash into McCrory's, and has turned over to McCrory's stores for which E-II paid $63.8 million in cash.
In return, E-II has gotten Bargain Time, a batch of non-interest-bearing notes and $204 million of McCrory preferred stock that carries a 13 percent dividend that's paid in new shares, not in cash. I don't know what this stock is worth, but it's not worth anything like $204 million.
Despite this help from E-II, which saves McCrory at least $75 million of interest expense a year, McCrory's reports to bondholders are depressing. E-II's obligation to help McCrory ends Jan. 31. Unless Riklis keeps on having E-II subsidize McCrory, there seems to be no way the company can stay in business and pay its debts.
But while E-II and McCrory may be on the ropes, weep not for Riklis. You can be reasonably certain that Riklis has enough money for himself in salary, fees and other transactions so that neither he nor Pia will ever have to shop at McCrory's or Newberry's -- unless, of course, they just want to go in and have a good laugh.
Allan Sloan is a columnist for Newsday in New York.