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How Vulture Capitalists Killed the Twinkie

The demise of Hostess is a story of management that boosted its own salaries, while failing to make agreed payments into workers’ pension funds.
 
 
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As the final Twinkies, Sno-Balls and those glowing orange cupcakes were stuffed with cream and wrapped in cellophane on Friday, the business world and much of the news media knew who was to blame for this dying American icon. It was the unions.

The Wall Street Journal described the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union as “The union that brought the 85-year-old baker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread to its knees.” Over at RedState, a headline tried to mix anti-union sentiment with conservative humor: “The Demise of Twinkies? Yes, It’s True. Parasitic Unions Kill Their Hosts (or, in this case, Hostess).”

As Hostess moved to end its operations last week — a bankruptcy judge  asked the company Monday to try mediation with its unions; those talks are scheduled to begin today — commentators were eager to blame the rigidity of unions.

But the story is far more complicated than that — and in some ways, the exact opposite of the tale pushed by those on the right. It’s the story of two bankruptcies, hundreds of millions of givebacks from Hostess unions and hundreds of millions of debt piled onto the company by venture capitalists. It’s a story of management that boosted its own salaries, while failing to make agreed payments into workers’ pension funds. And it’s a story of changing tastes and diets.

To begin with, when was the last time you ate a Twinkie or chose spongy Wonder Bread over an artisanal or organic load? The company simply hasn’t been able to adequately compete due to a stodgy, moribund management that did not act to diversify a product base that hasn’t changed with the times (unless you count 100-calorie Twinkies packs). As the New York Times reported way back on Sept. 23, 2004, “People are still eating Hostess Twinkies and Wonder Bread, but the problem for Interstate Bakeries is that they are eating less of them.”

For all these reasons, Hostess (then known as Interstate) initially entered bankruptcy in 2004, with uncomfortably close to half a billion dollars in debt. Sixty percent of the debt was owned by hedge funds Silver Point Capital and Monarch Alternative Capital, the rest by an assortment of other lenders. No one who was paying attention to the company’s fortunes was surprised by the move. During the nearly five years of its initial bankruptcy, the company accrued even more debt.

As these conditions lingered the workforce agreed to massive pay and benefit cuts in an attempt to keep the company afloat. One 14-year veteran of the company describes the $150 million annual givebacks the union agreed to: “In 2005, before concessions I made $48,000, last year I made $34,000.” Pensions and healthcare were cut as well, with labor’s total loss equaling $110 million annually.

Following these massive givebacks, a private equity company called Ripplewood Holdings brought the company out of bankruptcy in 2009 for $130 million and rechristened it Hostess Brands. The hedge funds and other lenders forgave some old debt and extended some new debt. Ripplewood convinced the other stakeholders that it could turn the company around and, apparently, convinced them so completely that only Hostess Management and Ripplewood had seats on the board. Neither the unions nor the hedge funds acquired voting seats as part of the deals struck to keep the company afloat. They just trusted Ripplewood to turn things around, implement new technologies, introduce new products, and rebuild aging infrastructure.

That’s not how things worked out.

“Ripplewood just failed miserably on implementation,” says Eileen Appelbaum, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. “It’s been a disaster. Ripplewood did not know what it was doing. They did not introduce any successful new products. Sure, they had high sales revenue but it had been declining since 2004.”

 
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