Girdles and socket wrenches: Sears was the Amazon of its day
By ALLEN G. BREED and ANNE D’INNOCENZIO
Tuesday, October 16
Before there was Amazon — or, for that matter, Home Depot or Walmart or Kmart — there was Sears.
From its beginnings as a mail-order watch business in Minneapolis 132 years ago, the company grew to become America’s everything-under-one-roof store and the biggest retailer in the world.
For generations of Americans, the brick-like Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog was a fixture in just about every house — a miscellany of toys and clothes and furnishings and hardware that induced longing for this or that dream purchase. The Sears brand loomed as large over the corporate landscape as its 108-story basalt-like headquarters did over the Chicago skyline.
“It was the Amazon of its day,” said Mark Cohen, a professor of retailing at Columbia University and a former Sears executive.
But how the mighty have fallen: Plagued by falling sales and heavy debt, Sears filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization Monday and announced plans to close 142 of its roughly 700 remaining stores and eliminate thousands of jobs in a bid to stay afloat, if only for a while.
Analysts have their doubts it will survive.
“In our view, too much rot has set in at Sears to make it (a) viable business,” Neil Saunders, managing director of GlobalData Retail, said in a note to investors.
Its bankruptcy was years in the making. Sears diversified too much. It kept cutting costs and let its stores become fusty in the face of increasing competition from the likes of Walmart and Target. And though it expanded onto the Internet, it was no match for Amazon.
“In point of fact,” Cohen said, “they’ve been dead for a very long time.”
In its bankruptcy filing, Sears Holdings, which operates both Sears and Kmart stores, listed assets of $1 billion to $10 billion and liabilities of $10 billion to $50 billion. It said it has lined up $300 million in financing from banks to keep operating and is negotiating an additional $300 million loan.
The company once had around 350,000 employees; as of Monday’s filing, it was down to 68,000. At its peak, it had 4,000 stores in 2012; it will now be left with a little more than 500.
Sears was born in 1886, when Richard W. Sears began selling watches to supplement his income as a railroad station agent in North Redwood, Minnesota. By the next year, he had opened his first store in Chicago and had hired a watchmaker named Alvah C. Roebuck.
The company published its first mail-order catalog in 1888. Together with companies like Montgomery Ward and J.C. Penney, Sears helped bring American consumer culture to middle America.
“It’s hard to imagine now how isolating it was to live in a small town 100 years ago, 120 years ago,” said Marc Levinson, author of “The Great A&P and the Struggle for Small Business in America.” ”Back before the days of cars, people might have a ride of several days in a horse and buggy just to get to the nearest train railhead, nearest train station.”
“What Sears did was make big-city merchandise available to people in small towns,” he said.
There was a time when you could find just about anything for your house in the Sears catalog — including a house. Between 1908 and 1940, the company sold about 75,000 build-from-a-kit houses, many of which are still standing.
Sears’ offerings could cover you from cradle to grave: It even sold tombstones. In between, there was everything from girdles to socket wrenches, dresses to guns, dolls to washing machines.
The Sears catalog “was second only to the Holy Bible in terms of the household importance,” said 71-year-old novelist Allan Gurganus, author of “The Last Confederate Widow Tells All.” He grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and recalls the way tenants on his grandfather’s farm loved the catalog.
When the new one would arrive, Gurganus said, the old one was consigned to the outhouse as reading material and, well, toilet paper. He said they always started at the back of the book when pulling out pages.
“That’s where the least important parts are — the plumbing fixtures and so forth,” he said with a laugh. “I was especially interested in the underwear ads.”
Gurganus uses the catalog as a research tool for his novels. A 1917 edition occupies his bedside table. He still has the six-string Silvertone guitar he ordered in 1963.
For generations, Sears was an innovator in practically every area, including home delivery, product-testing laboratories and employee profit-sharing. When post-World War II prosperity led to the growth of suburbia, Sears was well-positioned to cash in on another major development — the shopping mall.
By the late 1960s, Sears was the world’s largest retailer. In 1975, it completed the black Sears Tower, which at 1,450 feet (442 meters) was the world’s tallest skyscraper for 25 years.
Between 1981 and 1985, the company went on a spending spree, acquiring the stock brokerage Dean Witter Reynolds and the real estate company Coldwell, Banker. It launched the Discover credit card nationwide.
“They diverted all of their retail cash flow into other enterprises,” Cohen said. “And the retail business had come apart at the seams.”
Sears eventually got rid of those businesses. And to save money and generate capital, it sold off some of its most familiar brands, Craftsman and DieHard among them. In 1993, it killed the general merchandise catalog. Not long thereafter, its sold its skyscraper.
Sears introduced its popular “Come see the softer side of Sears” ad campaign in 1993 and had a turnaround starting in the mid- to late 1990s, but it didn’t last long.
Hedge fund manager Eddie Lampert bought the company in 2005 and created Sears Holdings Corp. He began cutting expenses and selling off real estate, but the hemorrhaging continued.
Retail historian Vicki Howard, author of “From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store,” said Sears was too slow to adapt as consumers drifted away from the malls and more toward online shopping and big-box stores farther out in the suburbs.
Levinson said that for too long, Sears catered to “a broad middle market” and failed to change with the times.
“There are a lot of stores specializing in particular parts of the market, and no longer very many stores that are seeking to serve everyone,” he said. “And so Sears was stuck there in the middle at a time when the market was fragmenting.”
Eventually, Cohen said, Sears will disappear.
“It’s an American tragedy,” he said. “It did not have to be this way.”
Breed contributed to this report from Raleigh, North Carolina, D’Innocenzio from New York.
How a Former Hedge Fund Manager and Corporate Lawyer Are Treating Philanthropy Like a Wall Street Bet
By Kate Patrick
High-risk opportunities with big-time payouts: That’s how John Arnold got rich as an investor, and now he’s using that same strategy to give his money away.
John and Laura Arnold may not be headline-grabbing philanthropists who’ve become household names like Bill and Melinda Gates or George Soros, but the couple is creating major impacts with their charitable giving by treating every new philanthropic venture the way John once treated his bets on Wall Street: Watching for risky opportunities that offer an outsized payoff.
In 2016 alone, according to filings, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation held $2 billion in assets and awarded grants worth $176.8 million. The result has been a philanthropic empire that, while sometimes stoking controversy, has made a clear and tangible effect on the sectors of society it has targeted.
John Arnold started his career as an oil analyst at the now-defunct Enron Corporation, where he eventually became a top trader on the company’s Natural Gas Desk. When Enron collapsed in 2002, Arnold launched his own hedge fund, Centaurus Financial, growing it and his own net worth above $1 billion. That success came thanks to some risky bets along the way. In 2006, for example, Arnold lined up his hedge fund on a high-risk position in the energy markets opposite another hedge fund. Arnold won, and the result was an overall portfolio return for investors of an astonishing 317 percent.
One year later, John Arnold was the world’s youngest billionaire.
Arnold retired in 2012 at age 38 to start the Laura and John Arnold Foundation with his wife, a former corporate lawyer. At the time, a profile published by Wired described John Arnold as a young philanthropist eager to make a concrete and substantial difference in the world, and unafraid to disrupt the world of philanthropy in the process.
The Arnolds essentially approach philanthropic ventures the way any Wall Street veteran would: they’re attracted to risky bets — as shown in their support for pretrial justice reform, increased soda tax, police surveillance support, and — despite the dangerous #MeToo-era politics — a gamble on a donation to a man accused of sexual abuse. The Arnolds are using their charitable giving to disrupt areas of society that are underserved or ignored by others.
In fact, they have had a lot to say about their fellow billionaire philanthropists. They joined with nearly 200 other philanthropists in signing the Giving Pledge (launched by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet), a promise to give most of their wealth away. But according to Wired, the Arnolds also criticized other philanthropists for being too safe in their giving.
Laura Arnold told Wired that their foundation seeks to be based on “thoughtful failure and fantastic success.”
That comment is very revealing about the choices the Arnolds have made over the last six years.
A review of the foundation’s website shows the Arnolds care deeply about data-driven solutions. Most of the issues they’ve chosen to tackle rely on their own data and research, rather than re-purposing work done by others.
For example, the foundation is currently conducting an investigation into gun violence in order to better inform policymakers. And the Arnolds seek leading experts to drive these efforts forward. The Arnold Foundation recruited Jeremy Travis, president of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York, to oversee criminal justice initiatives. Travis, who was a former clerk to then-U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has extensive experience in criminal justice as a former deputy commissioner of the New York Police Department and the architect of the city’s assault weapons ban.
The Arnolds practice what they describe as “evidence-based policy” and “research integrity” — two sides of the same coin, they believe. In the Arnolds’ view data, not ideology, should drive policy and scientific research. To combat bad science and bad policy, the Arnolds have launched several “policy labs” around the country in partnership with local governments and universities in an attempt to gather more trustworthy data on local issues.
This approach is not without its critics. In the area of criminal justice reform, for example, the Arnolds have recently launched nationwide their Public Safety Assessment tool (PSA), an algorithm that uses nine factors to help evaluate whether a person accused of a crime should be released pretrial.
While using risk factors like prior violent convictions and prior failure to appear in court may help judges sift through which individuals should be detained and which should be released, civil rights advocates fear that using federal criminal justice data — which many believe is tainted by a system that engages in racial profiling — means that the PSA will only perpetuate racial discrimination. Others have pointed to those being released on the tool’s recommendation committing additional crimes while awaiting trial.
Controversy follows many of the Arnolds’ other initiatives as well.
The Arnolds are major backers of charter school initiatives and school choice, but they were criticized when that support led them to back a leader in the charter school movement who was dismissed from his own charter school program over multiple sexual abuse accusations.
Recognizing glaring inequalities and problems with pensions in the United States, the Arnolds launched a pension reform initiative that emphasizes both fiscal responsibility and increased personal savings by retirees, which has drawn very sharp criticism from federal employees and politicians.
The Arnolds also backed the controversial soda tax in many states, most notably Pennsylvania. According to the Philadelphia Business Journal, they gave $500,000 to the City of Philadelphia’s legal defense of the soda tax in 2017, following the lawsuit from Big Soda.
The foundation has also pushed data-driven models to assess pricing for drugs, drawing ire from the pharmaceutical industry and raising questions about the use of their data model to determine what drugs are going to be most effective for a patient.
Besides giving Johns Hopkins University $450,000 to hand out free glasses to students in Baltimore, the Arnolds also gave $360,000 to the Baltimore Police Department’s surveillance initiative, which involved camera monitoring of city residents, without telling the mayor.
Given the Arnolds’ statement to Wired, the risk and the controversy involved in their philanthropic efforts is all part of the mission. The real question is: How effective is it?
In pretrial justice reform, the Arnolds’ PSA has produced mixed results. The Arnolds are working to make the PSA available nationwide, but there is still very little data on its efficacy and whether it’s accomplishing what the Arnolds want it to accomplish — a fairer criminal justice system. This push to take the PSA nationwide before the evidence is in doesn’t seem to align with their claim to pursue data-driven results.
Another source of criticism is the Arnolds’ political partisanship.
The Arnolds were top donors to both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, and they have given extensively to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They’ve teamed up with other liberal philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg on the soda tax, George Soros on the Brennan Center for Justice, and they back Patients for Affordable Drugs, an organization managed by former Clinton and Obama staffers.
The Arnold Foundation has also turned to Democratic politicos for guidance in their giving. Firms headed by Obama strategists Robert Gibbs, Ben LaBolt and Joel Benenson were collectively paid $1.5 million in 2015-2016, the two most recent years for which disclosures are available.
While it’s true that, in this election cycle, they have contributed to several Republican House candidates in safe GOP districts, they’ve simultaneously given the maximum allowed donation to Democratic candidates in key races: Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Joe Donnelly, Beto O’Rourke, and Conor Lamb.
These liberal bona fides have not protected the Arnolds from occasional criticism by the left, particularly when they joined the libertarian Koch brothers as lead proponents of public pension reform. The Arnolds’ efforts on criminal justice reform have taken heat from all sides: Civil rights groups complain that the Arnold Foundation’s data-driven approach is fundamentally unfair, while law-and-order conservatives point to every incident of a defendant who commits another crime while out on bail.
The Arnolds believe that philanthropy should be “aggressive, highly goal-oriented … entrepreneurial, not institutional or bureaucratic … seek(ing) transformational change, not incremental change.”
It’s a hedge fund approach to philanthropy. The jury’s still out on whether it will work.
The Arnold Foundation declined to be interviewed for this story.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Kate Patrick reports technology and finance news for InsideSources.com.
Opinion: Privatization Can Help Save the National Flood Insurance Program
By Liam Sigaud
As Hurricane Michael left devastation in its path, the program intended to protect homeowners from loss due to flooding continued to lurch from one financial crisis to the next.
The National Flood Insurance Program’s financial woes stem from the fact that it consistently fails to charge program participants rates that cover the full risk of flooding to their properties.
As a result, the NFIP’s revenues from premiums don’t even cover its claims during an average year. The Congressional Budget Office has calculated that the program is bleeding $1.4 billion annually. In years of catastrophic flooding, the NFIP has needed to borrow from the U.S. Treasury to honor its commitments to policyholders. Its debt now stands at $20.5 billion, and that’s after Congress forgave $16 billion of the program’s debts last fall.
Unless action is taken, the NFIP’s finances will only deteriorate in the wake of the 2018 hurricane season and with each passing year.
Any successful reform to the NFIP must include a strong emphasis on mitigation to reduce the extent of damage from flooding. This would decrease losses and help stabilize the NFIP’s finances. The NFIP must do more to encourage homeowners to mitigate properties through elevation, relocation, demolition or other measures.
The way the NFIP is currently structured also creates a cycle of waste. After a flood, homeowners in risky shoreside or riverside locations use the benefits from NFIP subsidies to rebuild in the same place, only to have their homes damaged again and again with each passing year. For example, one $70,000 home in Mississippi filed 34 claims from 1978 to 2010, totaling $663,000 — nearly 10 times the value of the house. The NFIP paid the bills every time.
Nor is this an isolated case. The Government Accountability Office found that just 1 percent of NFIP’s insured properties are responsible for 25 percent to 30 percent of claims. And the trend is alarming; the number of repetitive loss properties increased by 73 percent from 1997 to 2011, according to GAO.
Another flaw in the NFIP’s design is that a significant portion of homes with NFIP protection receive large insurance subsidies, distorting homeowner’s incentives and resulting in higher losses. According to the GAO, 22 percent of homes with an NFIP policy pay premiums that reflect only 40 percent to 45 percent of the cost of covering the full risk of flood damage — taxpayers cover the rest through billions of dollars in subsidies.
Furthermore, most of the NFIP’s subsidies are not targeted to low-income homeowners. GAO reports that most of the subsidies go to the wealthiest homeowners. It’s welfare for the rich.
By subsidizing policies, the NFIP induces excessive development in flood-prone regions, putting more properties in jeopardy, causing higher losses, and raising costs for everyone. The risks associated with these newly built properties become a liability for taxpayers for decades to come. According to a paper from the University of Chicago, government subsidized disaster insurance creates “inefficient incentives to develop and redevelop coastal land, as well as the regressive redistribution” of wealth that favors affluent homeowners.
To address these issues and restore financial stability to the NFIP, Congress should expand the role of private insurers in flood protection. The private market’s involvement would encourage a broader selection of coverage options, set rates that accurately measure risk, and lower costs for many consumers while lifting a burden from taxpayers’ shoulders. The NFIP itself has acknowledged that greater private-sector involvement should be considered.
In the interest of consumers and taxpayers, as Congress looks for a way to put the program back on track, creating a larger role for the private market should be central to any reform plan.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Liam Sigaud writes for the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit educational and research organization. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Is a coal-free future really possible in the United States?
Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
Dear EarthTalk: Are we really heading for a coal-free power future in the U.S. or is this just an environmental pipe dream?
—Jack Summa, Boston, MA
Far from just an environmental pipe dream, the coal industry in the U.S. and around the world is in the midst of a major downswing. In 2011, coal dropped below 40 percent of total U.S. energy generation for the first time since the late 1970s, while in 2015 coal accounted for only 33 percent. And given the influx of cheap natural gas and the ascendance of renewable energy sources—not to mention recent coal mine safety lapses with tragic consequences—coal might not be able to mount a comeback.
Coal is still big business in the U.S. and beyond, and it isn’t going away overnight. But how long it can stick around as a viable contender for Americans’ energy dollars as natural gas and renewables ascend is anybody’s guess. Credit: Rennett Stowe, FlickrCC.
“Technological advances have made natural gas, wind and solar—and efficiency—increasingly competitive,” reports John Brinkley in Sierra Magazine. “The once-robust overseas demand for coal is disappearing.”
Brinkley adds that a decade of sustained public advocacy for clean air and clean energy has left coal out in the dark. The Obama administration’s landmark Clean Power Plan that forces big coal fired power plants to clean up their acts dramatically or shut down has been one major factor in coal’s slide, while the Paris climate accord has sped up the process even more by taking a huge bite out of potential U.S. coal exports.
Over just the last five years, fully one-third of U.S. coal plants, some 232 different facilities, have been closed or scheduled for imminent retirement. Plans for another 184 new coal-fired plants have been shuttered—activists claim credit but the development of new technologies that make harvesting natural gas that much cheaper may have more to do with coal’s death knell. For the first time in 200 years, no new coal plants are on the drawing board in the U.S.
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), which collects data and reports on energy statistics for the federal government, some 13,000 megawatts of coal power went offline in 2015 as a result of coal plant retirements, while wind energy added 8,600 megawatts and solar tacked on another 7,300 megawatts. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign reports that coal’s downswing is just beginning, with another 50,000 megawatts of coal power predicted to go offline by 2030.
And the trend isn’t stopping at the border. “Many countries that used to be reliable customers for U.S. coal just aren’t into it anymore, partly because of last year’s successful UN climate change conference in Paris,” reports Brinkley. Even before the Paris agreement, China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of coal, had been scaling back production and imports drastically in efforts to clean up urban air pollution and reduce its carbon footprint. In 2015, China cut imports of U.S. coal some 86.5 percent from 1.7 million tons to only 229,000.
Of course, coal is still big business in the U.S. and beyond, and it isn’t going away overnight. But how long it can stick around as a viable contender for Americans’ energy dollars is anybody’s guess. “The trajectory for the coal industry is clear, but the timeline is not,” sums up Brinkley.
EarthTalk is a 501(c)3 non-profit which leverages the power of the media to “preach beyond the choir” on green living, sustainability and the need to protect the environment. Our syndicated EarthTalk Q&A column reaches tens of millions of readers every week through our network of 800+ syndication partners, many of which are small-town weekly newspapers across America’s heartland. Our EarthTalk.org and Emagazine.com websites reach millions more online.
IGS CNG SERVICES AND CLEAN FUELS OHIO TO HOST STOP FOR THE DRIVE NATGAS NGV SEA TO SHINING SEA ROAD RALLY
Columbus, OH – IGS CNG Services and Clean Fuels Ohio in partnership with NGVAmerica, will host the Ohio stop of the 2018 Drive NatGas Sea to Shining Sea NGV Road Rally. The event will be held on Monday, October 22 at 10:00 a.m. at IGS CNG Services – Renergy: CNG Fueling Station at 461 OH-61 in Marengo, Ohio.
The stop is part of a series of nationwide events, beginning in New Jersey and concluding in California, aimed at educating the public on the benefits of natural gas vehicles and promoting the accessibility of CNG refueling infrastructure. The Ohio stop will feature welcome speeches by IGS CNG and Clean Fuels Ohio. The next stop on the tour is Indianapolis.
Event partners also include the American Public Gas Association and the American Gas Association.
WHAT: Ohio Stop for the 2018 Drive NatGas Sea to Shining Sea NGV Road Rally
WHEN: Monday, October 22, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
WHERE: ICS GNG Services – Renergy: Fueling Station, 461 OH-61, Marengo, OH
NGVAMERICA is the leading national organization dedicated to the development of a growing, profitable, and sustainable market for vehicles powered by natural gas or biomethane. It represents more than 200 companies, environmental groups, and government organizations interested in the promotion and use of natural gas and biomethane as transportation fuels.
ABOUT IGS CNG Services
IGS CNG Services is a complete solutions provider to the natural gas vehicle industry. IGS CNG Services is focused on building CNG stations throughout the Midwest providing CNG fueling solutions and helping customers navigate this growing industry by utilizing domestically-produced energy resources.
Its partnership with IGS Energy provides the expertise necessary to help customers navigate this rapidly growing market. IGS CNG Services offers products and services which can reduce barriers to CNG adoption.
Services offered include:
· Ownership, operations, and maintenance of large, fast-fill CNG fueling stations
· Consulting and modeling to ensure optimal return on investment and capital requirements for fleets
· Risk mitigation services to provide users a long-term fixed CNG price driving fuel savings
Renergy is a renewable energy company that provides a closed-loop system, recycling waste into energy and nutrients through anaerobic digestion. They operate two anaerobic digesters located in Ohio.
Renergy keeps food waste and municipal biosolids out of the landfill by beneficially re-using them in a way that positively impacts our environment. Renergy is proud to offer a sustainable solution to this major environmental challenge.
ABOUT CLEAN FUELS OHIO
Clean Fuels Ohio (CFO) is a U.S. Department of Energy Clean Cities affiliated nonprofit dedicated to promoting the use of cleaner, domestic fuels and efficient vehicles to improve the transportation sector’s economic and environmental performance. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, our experienced staff have been the “go to” resource for assistance with implementing alternative transportation and efficiency solutions for the past 17 years.