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Acme owner cuts wages, boosts payments to shareholders as it preps for $1.5 billion IPO

Investors in Albertsons, which owns more than 2,200 U.S. grocery stores including Acme Markets, hope to raise $1.5 billion by selling shares even as it cuts pay to its workers.

The Acme Market on Egg Harbor Road in Washington Township, Gloucester County.
The Acme Market on Egg Harbor Road in Washington Township, Gloucester County.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

The real estate and buyout investors who control Acme Markets and other supermarket chains in 34 states are putting their enterprise up for a stock sale, hoping to sell up to $1.5 billion worth of shares at $20 each, according to a Thursday filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Albertsons Companies Inc., the Idaho-based owner of 2,200 supermarkets including Safeway stores, has boosted sales and hired an extra 40,000 workers since the coronavirus restaurant shutdowns sent Americans rushing into grocery stores. Albertsons now employs about 300,000 workers, serving 33 million customers a week, the company says.

Even as the investors prepared to sell off just part of the firm — about a sixth — for 15 times their cash payment seven years ago, they also told the SEC they are cutting the pay of their workers. The firm said it reduced the hourly wage by $4 on Saturday, reversing recent increases.

The Albertsons chains had boosted pay by $2 an hour March 15 as coronavirus warnings unnerved employees. The chains added another $2 just for this week, giving employees a small bump for a week before pay falls to pre-pandemic levels.

Many of its workers are paid minimum wage, or a few dollars an hour extra in low minimum wage states such as Pennsylvania, where many Acme employees are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is now set to the federally imposed floor of $7.25 an hour but is to go up to $8 on July 1.

The company also plans to start giving shareholders $228 million a year in quarterly dividends, double the cost of its current dividend program, according to its SEC filing.

That is a big chunk of Albertsons’ profits. Net income totaled $466 million last year, after taxes and dividends, on $62.5 billion in sales, according to the SEC filing. That’s a 0.7% return.

Chief executive Vivek Sankaran, hired last year from PepsiCo, has said he hopes to cut future expenses and boost profits by increasing online ordering and pickup and the use of self-checkout lanes. He also wants to improve shipping and storage. All of this would allow the company to employ fewer people.

Sankaran collected $29 million in salary, bonuses, and stock awards last year. He owns stock worth $38 million at the price set for the initial public offering..

He will not be selling shares as part of the IPO. But other significant owners, led by former Chrysler Corp. owner Cerberus Capital Management, will be unloading about 16% of their shares in the IPO. These sellers include Philadelphia-based Lubert-Adler Real Estate Funds, cofounded by former Penn State board chairman and Valley Forge Casino owner Ira Lubert, which invests for the Pennsylvania state workers’ and teachers’ pension plans (SERS and PSERS), and other clients.

The rest of the business will still be owned by those firms and by a group of smaller investors, including company executives and directors.

Cerberus, Albertsons’s largest investor, hopes to sell 28 million shares, worth $560 million, in the IPO. Lubert-Adler, Schottenstein Stores Corp., and Klaff Realty LP each hope to sell 10.4 million shares, worth $208 million each. Smaller investors also plan to sell some shares.

The four large firms will remain Albertsons’s largest owners. Their IPO price suggests they set the value of the entire concern at about $10 billion.

The investors will keep all the IPO proceeds, leaving nothing for the supermarkets. Albertsons has around $400 million in cash on hand, and net debt totaling around $7 billion, though that has fallen about $3 billion since 2017.

These owners bought Acme and several larger store chains from Supervalu Inc. in 2013 for $100 million in cash and assumed its $3.2 billion in debt.

It currently operates 50 supermarkets in Pennsylvania, 73 in New Jersey, and 50 in Delaware.

The sale, led by Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and other Wall Street investment banks, marks the third attempt the owners have made in five years to sell shares to the public. No date for the sale was announced.

In 2015 and 2017, Albertsons delayed plans for an IPO as it variously faced heightened competition from industry leader Walmart and from Amazon’s fast-growing home delivery service.

Investors had speculated Albertsons might again cancel its IPO plans in the face of investor indifference after the stock market fell sharply in March as restaurants, hotels, and other employers laid off more than 20 million Americans due to coronavirus shutdowns.

U.S. stock prices have since regained most of the March losses, though they remain volatile. President Donald Trump, who is running for reelection, has said he plans to keep stimulating the economy in hopes of replacing lost jobs this year. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has warned that recovery could take longer than Trump has forecast.

Correction: This story has been changed to correct figures concerning last year’s profits by Albertsons.