More turbulence for Midwest Airlines

    When you are no longer an independent company, you sometimes have to put up with the trials, tribulations and drama of your corporate benefactors.

    Such is life these days for Midwest Air Group, the Oak Creek-based parent company of Midwest Airlines, which is attempting to navigate through some extreme turbulence in the airline industry.

    The provider of "the best care in the air" was bought out by Midwest Air Partners LLC, an affiliate of Fort Worth, Texas-based TPG Capital, on Jan. 31. Northwest Airlines Inc. of Eagan, Minn., is a minority investor in the deal, which shunned a hostile takeover bid by AirTran Holdings Inc.

    Northwest has been going through a corporate soap opera of its own in recent weeks, as Atlanta, Ga.-based Delta Air Lines Inc. has agreed to buy Northwest for $3.63 billion in stock. The conglomeration would create the world’s largest air carrier and may kick off another round of consolidations in the industry.

    Members of the Air Line Pilots Association’s chapter at Midwest Airlines are worried that the U.S. Department of Justice could require Northwest to sell off its stake in Midwest to another party as a way of appeasing concerns over antitrust issues. Such fears seem unfounded in an era in which antitrust regulations have become almost quaint memories of distant days gone by. Where have you gone, Teddy Roosevelt?

    While Midwest Airlines executives keep their eyes on the fate of Northwest Airlines, they had some drama of their own this week when their No. 2 guy, chief operating officer Joseph Kolshak, resigned "to pursue another opportunity," just four months into the job. Kolshak had been hired only four days after Midwest Airlines was acquired by TPG Capital.

    Then another corporate soap opera involving TPG Capital bubbled up later this week.

    In addition to owning the majority of Midwest Air Group, TPG Capital and a unit of the Goldman Sachs Group had acquired Alltell Corp. in a $27.5 billion leveraged buyout seven months ago.

    Verizon Wireless announced this week that it has engaged in talks to acquire Alltel for about $28.1 billion in a venture that would create the world’s largest cell phone company.

    Why would TPG Capital agree to turn around and sell its share of Alltel so quickly with so little return on its investment?

    The answer is that TPG Capital wants to pay off the debts it acquired with Alltel as quickly as possible at a time when investment banks have been battered by big losses in credit markets, forcing many to sell their assets to raise cash and stay afloat

    Under the agreement, Verizon Wireless would pay about $5.9 billion in cash for Little Rock, Ark.-based Alltel and assume $22.2 billion in debt.

    Looking from afar, Joe Sweeney, managing director at CFA-LLC Investment Banking in Milwaukee, is doubtful TPG Capital’s balance sheet heartburn with Alltel will have any carryover effect on its investment in Midwest Airlines.

    Lined up next to Alltell, Midwest Airlines is but a blip on TPG Capital’s radar.

    Still, Sweeney says companies in the transportation sector are "hunkering down," trying to stay in business while absorbing skyrocketing fuel costs.

    Investment banks are not eager to call in overdue notes on distressed airlines, because the banks then incur the losses, Sweeney says.

    "A lot of banks are becoming partners with businesses in the transportation industry," Sweeney says.
    On a smaller scale, CFA’s business is booming, negotiating nine transactions at this time, Sweeney says.

    What’s driving that local merger and acquisition activity?

    According to Sweeney, many small business owners are cashing in their chips now before the November presidential election. The next president will inherit a fiscal budgetary nightmare.

    Sweeney believes Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain are both likely to be in favor of raising the federal capital gains tax from its current 15-percent rate.

    "That’s the fastest and easiest way to gain the most money," Sweeney says.

    So, business owners on the fence about selling their companies this year should consider the ramifications of waiting to 2009, Sweeney says.

    For full disclosure, it should be pointed out that it would be in Sweeney’s best interest to say just that.
    Turbulent times, indeed.

    Steve Jagler is executive editor of Small Business Times.

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