Eddie Lampert is the worst

Photo: Getty Images
Oct 17, 2018
George Anderson

Eddie Lampert is no longer the chief executive of Sears Holdings. He is, however, still the company’s chairman and largest single stockholder. He is also, based on comments he has made over the years — including a speech given to 1,000 employees at a company townhall meeting yesterday — either a liar or someone who is so divorced from reality that he is unable to accept that he has single-handedly destroyed the retailer.

According to CNBC, in his pep talk to employees, Mr. Lampert told them that they have a window of a few months to show that Sears is making progress to avoid having lenders force the company to shut down and liquidate.

Mr. Lampert, with no apparent sense of irony or willingness to accept that the company’s state of disrepair lies solely on his shoulders, told a group of people who may shortly find themselves out of jobs and without pensions that it’s up to them to save a company he has destroyed.

His assertion comes after 13 years of systematically giving away the retailer’s few competitive points of difference through the sale of popular, exclusive brands, while steadfastly refusing to invest in the company’s stores or turn management over to leaders who actually understand the business.

In 2011, after three years operating under an interim CEO, Mr. Lampert hired Louis D’Ambrosio, a former tech industry executive with no retail experience, to run Sears Holdings. Two years later, when Mr. D’Ambrosio stepped down after selling off assets to boost the company’s “liquidity,” Mr. Lampert took over as CEO.

At the time, he said, “I have agreed to assume these additional responsibilities in order to continue the company’s recovery and sustain the momentum we are experiencing, as well as further the development of the management team under the distributed leadership model, which provides our business unit leaders with greater control, authority and autonomy.”

Sears, at that point, had not posted a profit for three years, but Mr. Lampert insisted that the business was on the rebound. That same year, he asserted that critics of his strategy just weren’t smart enough to get the ingenious plan he had to remake the company.

By then, most industry experts agreed with the assessment of Mark Cohen, the former chairman and CEO of Sears Canada, who called Mr. Lampert a “ruthless, methodical asset-stripper.”

Mr. Lampert called the speech he gave yesterday the second most difficult he has ever given in his life, following a eulogy for his father.

“There were mistakes along the way, for which I take responsibility,” he said. “Those failures have affected me in many ways far greater than any successes I have had.”

Perhaps, Mr. Lampert is telling the truth, since his reputation is in tatters. Of course, that’s small consolation to the thousands of people with nowhere near his financial resources who have found their lives upended by his actions, along with many more who will be further affected when Sears comes to its final end.

Eddie Lampert is the worst _____. We’ll leave it to others to fill in the blank.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Is Eddie Lampert the worst retail industry executive ever, or is there a viable argument in his defense? Do you agree that he was nothing more than a “ruthless, methodical asset-stripper” from the time he created Sears Holdings?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"All of his actions have been financial and often to his own benefit. They have never been concerned with building up Sears or ensuring its long-term survival."
"Another sad example of the ugly and greed-motivated underside of capitalism."
"Mr. Lampert is, in my opinion, an evil genius."

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26 Comments on "Eddie Lampert is the worst"

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Mark Ryski

Lampert would certainly get my vote as worst industry executive ever. In this case, we’re not talking about a few strategic blunders – this is systemic and consistent failure due to very bad, traumatic decisions it appears he has made unilaterally. I have no sympathy for Lampert. And while his asset stripping is disgraceful, more importantly he has stripped the careers and pensions from hundreds of thousands of working people, and that’s unforgivable.

Paula Rosenblum

You can’t talk about “worst” retail executives without mentioning Bob Nardelli or Ron Johnson. Especially Nardelli. You had to work hard to have decreasing comp sales during the real estate boom of the early 2000s. The thing about Lampert is this was always his end game — getting the real estate. What was Nardelli’s or Johnson’s excuse?

But we should also ask who the best have been. Nardelli was followed by Frank Blake, who magnificently cleaned up the mess.

Nikki Baird

I find it stomach-turning to read all of these analyses in the wake of the filing about “where it all went wrong” and how doing these two or three things would’ve saved Sears. I think Lampert’s only regret is that he couldn’t stretch out the charade a few more years and eke a few more dollars out of laying waste to an iconic brand. And that otherwise, this was a plan well-designed and well-executed: how to extract as much value out of Sears as is humanly possible.

Bob Phibbs

Can’t say it better George! Yes, even worse than Ron Johnson and what he did to J.C. Penney.

David Weinand

We’re not in the trenches to see exactly what went on but certainly from the periphery and knowing all of the financial hijinx he has implemented at Sears to personally benefit from Sears’ slow demise – I’d have to say “hell yeah” — not only the worst retail executive ever, one of the worst human beings ever ….

Neil Saunders

I’m filling in the blank with “retailer.” He doesn’t have a clue about retailing and has never run Sears as a retailer. All of his actions have been financial and often to his own benefit. They have never been concerned with building up Sears or ensuring its long-term survival.

It is true that Sears had issues long before Eddie came on the scene. However, he is the author of its current fate and no amount of faux handwringing will change that. The markets know it, lenders know it, the public knows it and, most importantly, those who work for Sears know it.

He may come out of this in a good financial position, but his reputation is in tatters. And deservedly so.

Art Suriano
Without knowing the man and his intentions other than what one can read, it’s hard to tell whether he was a ruthless, methodical asset-stripper and only interested in self-gain or a very poor leader. I suspect it’s a bit of both. It’s hard to imagine Lampert not seeing the financial gains he would achieve as he sold off key assets, so it’s easy to agree with the methodical asset-stripper concept. At times it was odd that he would put in his own money to keep the company going. Perhaps that was part of the plan, and Lampert did it for nothing more than for show. Many will say that Lampert did all he could but that it was Amazon and the new wave of shopping online that destroyed Sears. Unfortunately, that excuse is becoming tired and is the new norm to say that when a retailer goes out of business-like Toys “R” Us or Bon-Ton. The truth is that years ago Sears lost its direction and became a sleeper company. Lampert failed when he had… Read more »
Bob Amster

The only ones who would defend Mr. Lampert are those who would admire a person’s cunning in ruining a business and negatively impacting so many employees, all for his own benefit. Lampert can’t be the “worst” because that would imply that he didn’t know what he was doing. But he did know.

Jeff Sward

Retail is a business of constant change and innovation. That has been proven out more in the last decade than maybe ever before. And what change or innovation can Sears take credit for? Can they even take credit for having kept up with the market on anything? A current visit to a Sears store is a visit to the prior century. Couldn’t they have just copied Best Buy, or Primark, or given Lands’ End the shot they really deserved? Something? Anything? NOTHING! It’s remarkable to note that they refused to learn from what they saw going on around them. So why would a smaller store count unburdened from the debt load succeed in a new life? Where does Sears compete successfully? Appliances and home electronics? How long will it take them to rise to Best Buy’s level? I’d rather invest in buggy whips.

Meaghan Brophy

Well, we’re certainly not beating around the bush with this discussion! Yes, Lampert did a horrible job. But, as others have pointed out, it seems highly unlikely that Lampert ever really intended on turning Sears around. It’s just a sad state of affairs all around, and unfortunately, Sears’ employees will bear the brunt of it.

Dick Seesel

At least Ron Johnson had a strategy, no matter how misguided and lacking in “beta testing,” to improve a stagnant company’s fortunes. (Instead, he almost ran it into the ground.) Right now, Lampert is in a class by himself even though “worst ever” is a high bar to clear. What separates him from the pack is his pattern of bleeding the company assets to feather his own nest.

I would not want to be one of those 1.000 headquarters employees — no doubt hardworking professionals in every functional area from buying to accounts payable to IT — listening to Mr. Lampert’s claptrap yesterday. To put the onus of survival on their shoulders (with a 90-day window) is grossly unfair, considering the litany of Lampert’s own bad decisions and financial manipulation that has led Sears to this sad place.

Adrian Weidmann

It’s hard for me to believe that the demise of Sears under Mr. Lampert’s guidance should be viewed as a failure. I tend to believe that after Mr. Lampert took control and assessed the state of Sears, he planned to manipulate the situation within the law to surgically extract as much cash for himself and his accomplices as possible for as long as they could while knowing how the last chapter would be written. Another sad example of the ugly and greed-motivated underside of capitalism.

Lee Peterson

My top vote in the “worst” category is Terry Lundgren, especially since somehow he still gets accolades from the press for disguising the fact that he totally ruined the department store as we knew it. But I must say, Eddie is Definitely in the top three worst of all time! He’s up there simply for not embracing where consumers were moving to fast enough. Sears’ (and his) inability to take bold leaps cost them in the end (see Walmart for instructions on that).

Tom Dougherty

Many retail executives stick their heads in the sand. Pretending that everything is simply okay. That they have time to make changes.

Eddie is self-centered in his comments. I believe he is lying, as you imply. But self-deception is a chronic disease in the category. CHANGE has happened. Everything is on the table.

Richard Layman
10 months 7 days ago
The only thing about this discussion is the implication that Sears was not already on a significant downward spiral before it got entangled with/by Lampert. Even if he hadn’t got involved with either Sears or Kmart, it’s not unlikely they would be at roughly the same point. That being said, there was opportunity within Sears for revival, changing formats, putting stores in different locations in concert with changes in consumer preferences and behaviors, but that was never going to happen with Lampert. Could it have happened with someone else running the show? With regards to Ron Johnson, I’d say it’s not that he had bad ideas, just that they weren’t congruent with the business model and structure of J.C. Penney. It’s easy to be seen as great when you’re selling items that cost between $600 to $4,000 each, which also gives you credit for stratospheric sales/s.f. It might not mean you’re a genius though (for what it’s worth, on the Market-L e-list in 1994 I suggested that Apple create stores). It’s a lot harder to… Read more »
Lisa Goller

Yes. Lampert is the retail version of pharma CEO-turned-inmate Martin Shkreli. His decisions to ignore retail upheaval, and hedge his bets to guarantee he profits regardless of Sears’ performance harmed his employees, investors and vendors.

Peter Charness

There was plenty of time to “reinvent” Sears and make it a potentially different but successful chain. There’s a reason that such financial acquirers were called “vulture funds.” This wasn’t the first, and unfortunately won’t be the last financial-engineered asset strip. I wish these greedy geniuses could meet the 100,000+ Sears associates who are now looking for work.

Cynthia Holcomb

Morally corrupt, the legacy of Mr. Lampert. It is heartening in a world of constant “spinning” for financial and political gain that a human moral compass still exists within us, the rank and file.

Brandon Rael
Sorry, I am late to the party! Not so much love for one of the worst CEOs in modern business history. Eddie Lampert’s tenure at Sears has to go down as one of the retail industry tragedies of the 21st century. Empires rise and fall, and unfortunately, Lampert’s lack of leadership, vision, and overall horrible decision making have led Sears on a nightmarish downward spiral for the past 15 years. There are countless numbers of CEO horror stories. One that comes to mind is Tom Johnson’s tenure at Aeropostale, a teenage apparel company that was riding high during the early to mid-2000s. Having worked there during the glory years, before Tom Johnson, the company had the right leadership, vision, and strategy. All of that was lost when Tom Johnson took over, and the company almost went completely bankrupt. Culture and the right leadership are everything. Lost in all of the publicity about the loss of Sears, are the passionate, dedicated current and former employees whose salaries, pensions are livelihoods will be stripped from them.
Tony Orlando

Seems like Eddie was all about Eddie, and the employees are screwed. Sears was going down anyway, but this guy is beyond selfish, and he will walk away with a pile of money, which is sad, but probably legal. Integrity in life and business is something we all should strive for, and even in failure you must walk away knowing you did your best for your employees, and community.

There will be more failing retailers large and small as the mega giants are mowing down the competition, so I wish all entrepreneurs success in the coming holiday season.

Rich Duprey
Hard to argue with any of the comments made. More so than with Ron Johnson at J.C. Penney, Lampert engaged in purposeful neglect of Sears. He refused to update the stores because he said customers didn’t care about “decor and fixtures.” While Lampert and his ESL hedge fund own about half of Sears stock, which theoretically gave him skin in the game to turn the business around, being Sears largest debt holder also ensured he got access to prime real estate. It’s no coincidence Lampert is also chairman of the Seritage Growth Properties REIT he spun out with several hundred Sears properties. It is now re-renting those stores at rates 3x higher than what Sears was paying. As for J.C. Penney’s Johnson, I think he’s gotten a bad rap. JCP was in a downward spiral when he took over. Customers were fleeing and sales were hemorrhaging. It needed to do something drastic, which is why he was brought in. He definitely should have tested ideas more instead of rolling them out nationally right away, and… Read more »
Craig Sundstrom

Far be it from me to offer a defense, but if we step back from the hyperbole for a minute: the worst EVER? There was Sewell Avery, who almost single handedly destroyed Montgomery Ward (apparently others later finished the work he started), and Ron Johnson’s tenure at JCP (IIRC a one third fall in yr/yr sales), and whoever ran Circuit City and … well you get the idea: there’ve been plenty of candidates. What was different here, or course, was that on one ever stepped in to stop him; and we know why. So maybe the “award” he should really get is the worst retail owner, ever.

Ananda Chakravarty
I’ve watched the fall of Sears for several years now. Despite the push in this thread to criticize Lampert, I never walked his shoes, never faced his decisions, never put up with all the criticism that the media, his competitors, investors, employees and others engaged in. If there’s anything that I can be sure of, it’s his reputation amongst the retail elite has been destroyed. Frankly, I doubt my opinion of him matters at this point. I have some great friends at Sears. I also had some great friends at Sears. Read this letter from a senior exec at Sears Holding. It’s testament to the fact that Sears did have a pulse and the inner workings that few of us will know, and even fewer still will endure long after Sears is gone. If there’s anything I can say with conviction about Lampert — he’s a poor PR strategist. I’m certain many other execs have the skills, support structure and ability to pull off far worse than he did while maintaining a great public persona.… Read more »
Jeff Miller

Eddie Lampert is not the worst executive ever in the retail industry. Someone who tanked a thriving business would have my vote over someone who sped up the failure of a declining business. He is however a person who only cares about himself who used a story of a turnaround as cover for selling off assets that only helped shareholders like himself. I wish he was more transparent about his plans to stuff his own pockets and leave others–especially people losing their jobs and pensions–holding the bag. Sears was not long for this world even if it had the best leadership team in the world. He is an old school corporate raider–simple as that.

James Tenser

Mr. Lampert is, in my opinion, an evil genius. He has been dismembering Sears/Kmart over a period of years with one apparent goal in mind: Extract the maximum value possible for shareholders (i.e. himself). Serving customers is of no consequence. Serving employees even less so.

His shrewd tactics are not even original. In its final days, the legendary discount store chain EJ Korvette was shuttered overnight in 1980, when its new owners calculated that the potential lease income from its owned properties could far exceed the profits it could take by selling merchandise.

The recent Ch. 11 announcement allows Lampert to continue to stretch out this process. The alternative — Ch. 7 liquidation — would have dumped the remaining properties onto the market and probably depress their value.

Saddest aspect of this whole slow-motion train wreck is the way employees are being treated, with an enormous pension obligation hanging in the balance.

Harley Feldman

Worst ever — no defense. Lampert did not just lose lots of money for his shareholders and loss of jobs for his employees, he completely destroyed the Sears brand. Sears does not stand for anything anymore. He was not ruthless; he was clueless on running the company to create value. He never had the vision to evolve as the major retailer Sears once was, and he let Amazon become the major retailer who took advantage of the online world.

"All of his actions have been financial and often to his own benefit. They have never been concerned with building up Sears or ensuring its long-term survival."
"Another sad example of the ugly and greed-motivated underside of capitalism."
"Mr. Lampert is, in my opinion, an evil genius."

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