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Poor management, not union intransigence, killed Hostess

The company had done almost nothing in the last 10 years to modernize or expand its offerings.

November 25, 2012|Michael Hiltzik
  • Striking workers picket at the Hostess Bakery in Los Angeles.
Striking workers picket at the Hostess Bakery in Los Angeles. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Let's get a few things clear. Hostess didn't fail for any of the reasons you've been fed. It didn't fail because Americans demanded more healthful food than its Twinkies and Ho-Hos snack cakes. It didn't fail because its unions wanted it to die.

It failed because the people that ran it had no idea what they were doing. Every other excuse is just an attempt by the guilty to blame someone else.

Take the notion that Hostess was out of step with America's healthful-food craze. You'd almost think that Hostess failed because it didn't convert its product line into one based on green vegetables. Yet you only have to amble down the cookie aisle at your supermarket or stroll past the Cinnabon kiosk at the airport to know that there are still handsome profits to be made from the sale of highly refined sugary garbage.

It's true that the company had done almost nothing in the last 10 years to modernize or expand its offerings. But as any of the millions of Americans who have succumbed to Twinkie cravings can attest, there has always been something about their greasy denseness and peculiar aftertaste that place them high among the ranks of foodstuffs that can be perfectly satisfying without actually being any good.

Hostess management's efforts to blame union intransigence for the company's collapse persisted right through to the Thanksgiving eve press release announcing Hostess' liquidation, when it cited a nationwide strike by bakery workers that "crippled its operations."

That overlooks the years of union givebacks and management bad faith. Example: Just before declaring bankruptcy for the second time in eight years Jan. 11, Hostess trebled the compensation of then-Chief Executive Brian Driscoll and raised other executives' pay up to twofold. At the same time, the company was demanding lower wages from workers and stiffing employee pension funds of $8 million a month in payment obligations.

Hostess management hasn't been able entirely to erase the paper trail pointing to its own derelictions. Consider a 163-page affidavit filed as part of the second bankruptcy petition.

There Driscoll outlined a "Turnaround Plan" to get the firm back on its feet. The steps included closing outmoded plants and improving the efficiency of those that remain; upgrading the company's "aging vehicle fleet" and merging its distribution warehouses for efficiency; installing software at the warehouses to allow it to track inventory; and closing unprofitable retail stores. It also proposed to restore its advertising budget and establish an R&D program to develop new products to "maintain existing customers and attract new ones."

None of these steps, Driscoll attested, required consultation with the unions. That raises the following question: You mean to tell me that as of January 2012, Hostess still hadn't gotten around to any of this?

The company had known for a decade or more that its market was changing, but had done nothing to modernize its product line or distribution system. Its trucks were breaking down. It was keeping unprofitable stores open and having trouble figuring out how to move inventory to customers and when. It had cut back advertising and marketing to the point where it was barely communicating with customers. It had gotten hundreds of millions of dollars in concessions from its unions, and spent none of it on these essential improvements.

The true recent history of Hostess can be excavated from piles of public filings from its two bankruptcy cases. To start with, the company has had six CEOs in the last 10 years, which is not exactly a precondition for consistent and effective corporate strategizing.

The most recent and presumably final incumbent, Gregory Rayburn, had been with the company all of nine days before taking over in March when Driscoll, who earlier had been described in court papers as "key to … the future well-being" of the company, departed suddenly and without explanation.

Hostess first entered bankruptcy in 2004, when it was known as Interstate Bakeries. During its five years in Chapter 11, the firm obtained concessions from its unions worth $110 million a year. The unions accepted layoffs that brought the workforce down to about 19,000 from more than 30,000. There were cuts in wages, pension and health benefits. The Teamsters committed to negotiations over changes in antiquated work rules. The givebacks helped reduce Hostess' labor costs to the point where they were roughly equal  to or even lower than some of its major competitors'.

But the firm emerged from bankruptcy with more debt than when it went in — in with $575 million, out with $774 million, all secured by company assets. That's pretty much the opposite of what's supposed to happen in bankruptcy. By the end, there was barely a spare distributor cap in the motor pool that wasn't mortgaged to the private equity firms and hedge funds holding the notes (and also appointing management).

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