By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, Friday, March 20, 2020
BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: After the below story about the March 12 bidding procedures hearing was written and filed with Farmshine for yesterday’s press deadline, docket 1167 — posted late last evening — shows that a motion was filed ahead of today’s anticipated hearing to modify the proposed bidding procedures and withdraw the prior request for DFA to be Stalking Horse Bidder in the sale of Dean Foods assets, noting that DFA will remain a potential bidder in modified proposed bidding procedures. Docket 1167 states in part: “…after extensive discussions, DFA and the Debtors (Dean Foods) determined to proceed without being the Stalking Horse Bidder and without Bid Protections. Accordingly, the Debtors (Dean Foods) are withdrawing their request for approval of DFA as a Stalking Horse Bidder, and any approval or authorization of the Stalking Horse Asset Purchase Agreement or Bid Protections. Critically, this withdrawal by the Debtors (Dean Foods) of their request for a Stalking Horse Bidder does not signal a withdrawal by DFA from the bidding process, and the Debtors (Dean Foods) expect and believe that by avoiding litigation over procedure, all parties-in-interest, including DFA, will focus on developing competitive and value-maximizing bids. In addition, the Debtors (Dean Foods) have been working around-the-clock to respond to continuing data requests from the Ad Hoc Group in an effort to provide that key constituency with all of the information needed to formulate a bid…”
HOUSTON, Tex. – Last Thursday (March 12) a hearing here on the Southern Foods Group bankruptcy considered a motion to approve Dairy Farmers of America Inc. (DFA) as “stalking horse bidder” and to set bid procedures outlined in the Dean Foods / DFA $425 million Asset Purchase Agreement covering 44 of Dean’s 57 plants.
Judge David R. Jones instead asked for Dean Foods to come back with a sale process that is “open, transparent and fair to everyone.” He also set a hearing for Thursday March 19 to revisit new bidding procedures and protections sought by DFA,
Judge Jones also expedited proposed sale dates, indicating March 30 at Noon as a deadline for bids to be submitted, a quick turnaround for Dean to “declare winners” ahead of April 1 for parties to file objections, and April 3 as a sale hearing. Dean confirmed this week that these are the dates they are working with pending the March 19 hearing outcome.
Part of the reason for expediting dates in a more “open” bidding process is the company’s liquidity concerns in the face of financial and commodity market challenges due to school closings and other supply chain happenings related to novel coronavirus / CoVid-19.
It was revealed that 22% of Dean Foods’ sales – approximately $52 million per month – is school milk and foodservice sales.
In separate inquiries this week of several fluid milk processors, including Dean Foods, a surge in demand for milk is being reported that began last Friday when widespread school closings were also announced.
This surge in store demand is currently more than making up for any losses due to school closings in the short-term, but uncertainty is the cloud over everything, especially in this bankruptcy sale where liquidity provided by a combination of cash flow and bankruptcy financing was projected on March 6 to last through June after being projected last fall to last through July. It was noted that recent events may further compress these liquidity projections, an important factor to keeping the bankruptcy from falling into a Chapter 7 category.
In the three-hour hearing with two recesses for parties to confer, Judge Jones heard from counsel representing Dean Foods, DFA, an ad hoc committee for dairy cooperatives, and committees of creditors, bondholders, labor unions and others.
Department of Justice concerns over specific plants included in the 44-plant DFA bid were also referenced, but not explained or detailed, and the Judge expressed his desire to see the winning bid mix handled in a way that would be open to potential regional buyers for single plants and in a way that puts forward the best “mix” that returns the best value, while also keeping the jobs going and milk flowing, and hinges on satisfying any known DOJ concerns.
It was indicated that communication between DFA and DOJ and Dean and DOJ have been ongoing since October.
Essentially, the Judge asked Dean Foods to provide information needed by bondholders working on a potential restructure, to simplify the bidding procedures so that anyone who is not a bankruptcy attorney can understand them, and to provide the opportunity for potential buyers to bid on one plant or multiple plants.
Judge Jones again issued a plea for all parties to work together in the sale of the company he said is in everyone’s best interests to see continue and is “important to our country.”
“I am giving you full flexibility to propose and handle this however you want to handle it and reserving flexibility to drive this process if I have to,” said Judge Jones, indicating that he hoped an auction would not ultimately be necessary on all assets.
Throughout portions of the hearing, counsel for Dean indicated the need for bid protections for DFA, given their work in putting together the first actual sale plan covering a majority of assets.
Part of the “stalking horse” status sought for DFA by Dean’s original motion was to include “break up” fees averaging $15 million per plant that would have to be paid by bidders winning plants in an auction situation and pulling them out of DFA’s 44-plant bid. Judge Jones wasn’t convinced that breakup fees were necessary; although he did indicate that DFA should receive something for their contribution in putting together the first bid for a substantial portion of Dean’s assets to get the process moving – something no other entity has done to-date.
In fact, Judge Jones stated that he was less concerned about breakup fees than he was about the bidding process itself.
Counsel for the creditors committee said they were receiving broad interest from potential bidders on single or multiple plants, but that without a fair and open process and without documents needed to formulate bids, these potential bidders would be operating in the dark or unable to participate.
Judge Jones said that, “It’s theoretically possible to cobble together bids for individual plants (in the asset mix), and they are all telling me they are not getting a fair shake because you won’t give them the opportunity to make a bid for one or two or three plants,” said the Judge. “My way does that.”
He said that they (DFA) aren’t going to get copies of the other bids and that DFA would not have to break down their bid to a plant by plant pricing.
“No way, that’s not going to happen. I am trying to give examples of how unhappy I am with this process. I hear you trying to talk me out of it, and I assure you, I am far more stubborn than you,” said the Judge. “At the end of the day, I get to be right or wrong.”
With the expedited bid deadline — a date certain when every interest would put its best bid forward for a single plant or multiple plants — everyone involved would see everyone else’s bid at the same time, and they would be made public.
In essence, no one got everything they wanted, and everyone got something they wanted in the new process parameters set forth by the Judge to be revisited at the hearing this week (March 19).
Interests pleading for time to put together a bondholder restructure did not get extra time, and interests looking for special protections to streamline majority assets going to DFA did not get that either.
Judge Jones asked no less than three times: “Why do you need an auction at all?”
He said further that Dean has “the best advisers in the world. You have gan asset mix that is incredibly hard to have an auction on to be fair. Let’s set a deadline for everyone to put their best foot forward by that date (potentially March 30 Noon), then you put together the best deal (the best mix of winning bids March 31) and ask me to approve it (potential sale hearing April 3), and if someone has an issue with it, they can stand up and take their shots (objections by April 1). This forces people to put up or shut up.”
Bottom line, said the Judge, “I want a fair and open process, not just for two parties, but for all parties.
“I am not going to lawyer this deal, but I want a process where… everyone gets a shot. The (process) that you have outlined doesn’t do that,” he said of the bidding procedures in Dean’s motion.
In the bankruptcy proceedings, all proof of claims are due by March 27 with the first omnibus hearing still on the court calendar for March 30, followed by another on April 22. Information is available at https://deanfoodsrestructuring.com/ and dockets can be found at https://dm.epiq11.com/SouthernFoods