The battle is on for control of Burlington Industries Inc., as a rival investor said Wednesday he has enough support to block Burlington’s proposed sale to investment guru Warren Buffett.
Wilbur Ross, chairman of W.L. Ross & Co., said a majority of Burlington’s unsecured creditors oppose the sale of the Greensboro-based textile company to Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. of Omaha, Neb.
Ross said Berkshire’s proposal is insufficient, as it offers Burlington’s bond holders and trade creditors just 35 percent of the money theyre owed. Burlington has been in bankruptcy court for more than a year.
“Buffett is famous for buying dollar bills for 50 cents,” said Ross, whose New York investment company controls Burlington bonds with a face value of $81 million. “The board’s job is to get the best price.”
Late Tuesday, Burlington filed a reorganization plan outlining how it would emerge from federal bankruptcy court virtually debt-free as a subsidiary of Berkshire. Burlington is one of the largest textile companies in the Carolinas, with about $1 billion in annual sales and 7,600 employees worldwide.
Ross’s competing proposal could yield as much as 60 cents on the dollar for unsecured creditors. But that would require they wait until Burlington emerged from bankruptcy and was sold off in pieces before being totally paid.
Ross warning shot Wednesday likely triggered a complex chain of events in which two savvy investors will square off in bankruptcy court for the right to own Burlington, once the world’s largest textile company.
On one side is Buffett, the legendary investor who is the world’s second-richest man. On the other is Ross, known as the “bankruptcy king” for his experience in deal-making involving financially troubled companies.
“What you have are two extremely successful, shrewd investors locked in a battle,” said Sam McNeil, managing partner with River Capital Advisors, a restructuring consulting group.
A person contacted at Berkshire Hathaway’s headquarters Wednesday said the company does not normally comment on its investments except in written statements or as required by law. The company had not posted any statements on its Web site as of late Wednesday.
A Burlington spokesman declined to respond directly to Ross claim, saying only that the bankruptcy court would ultimately decide the company’s fate. Burlington has proposed to the court a way for it to consider competing offers, including Ross, he said.
Ross said holders of more than $120 million on unsecured claims, in addition to his $81 million, have written him rejecting Berkshire Hathaway’s offer. That means creditors representing more than half of the $400 million in Burlington’s unsecured debt are opposed to the deal, he said.
That’s more than enough to block the deal in bankruptcy court, but Ross said Wednesday he hoped Burlington would simply withdraw its plan of reorganization and solicit bids in a more open process overseen by the bankruptcy court.
Ross said he was particularly offended by provisions in the deal that require Burlington pay Berkshire a $14 million break-up fee if the bankruptcy judge ultimately approves Ross separate proposal to sell the company off in pieces.
“That is ridiculous and is a squandering of the estate’s assets,” Ross said in an interview. “Why on earth should they pay a break-up fee?”
Burlington’s bonds were trading as high as 37 cents on the dollar Wednesday, which Ross said suggested Berkshire’s bid was low.
Ross said he thinks the court can recover much more than that by shopping Burlington’s various division to competitors. He said the company’s Lee carpet division would be very attractive to carpeting companies that would not be interested in buying its apparel and home furnishings businesses.