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Walgreens reportedly explores taking company private, could be largest leveraged buyout ever



CHICAGO >> Walgreens is exploring a potential deal to take the company private, as the pharmacy chain grapples with shifting costumer habits and pressures on its pharmacy business.

Reuters first reported today Walgreens was exploring the move. Such a step would remove the company from the public eye and could make it easier to focus more on in-store health services, which could draw in customers and better position Walgreens to compete with CVS Health, analysts said.

For Walgreens, going private would mean not having to answer to shareholders for the first time since 1927 as well as not abiding by the regulatory reporting requirements that bind publicly traded firms.

“The real driver are the wellness initiatives. The public markets are not patient enough to wait for them,” said Soo Romanoff, a Chicago-based analyst for Morningstar. “The company’s theory is that we will go private and hone in a lot of the data that goes into those programs instead of rushing the process.”

“Illinois might actually benefit a lot because the company does testing at its Deerfield and Chicago-area locations.”

However, Reuters reported some private equity firms have expressed concern about how such a deal would be funded.

Walgreens spokesman Aaron Radelet declined to comment to the Tribune on the company’s plans.

The news comes weeks after the company laid off employees and said it won’t pay annual bonuses this year as it works to increase its cost-cutting goal to $1.8 billion annually. Walgreens also previously announced plans to close 200 of its stores and said it would eliminate health insurance for a number of eligible retirees after this year.

Those closings include a store in Jeffrey Manor that will close Monday and a location in the Lake View East neighborhood that will close Nov. 14, Walgreens spokesman Phil Caruso said in an email.

If the company does go private, Lawrence Officer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said “workers are probably not going to gain.”

“Usually, when someone wants to take over a company … they think they can do a better job of management and that doesn’t mean they’re going to expand,” he said. “In this situation, that means they’re going to cut more.”

With a market cap of more than $55 billion, if a deal were to come to pass, it could be the largest leveraged buyout ever. The 2007 sale of Texas utility TXU to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and TPG Capital, a deal valued at roughly $45 billion, holds the record as the largest leveraged buyout.

Walgreens, which has more than 18,750 stores worldwide, is confronting changes in how people use pharmacies, as consumers buy goods online and from other stores. It also faces pressures related to medication reimbursements.

The chain, based in Deerfield, is working to offer more reasons for customers to visit its stores by emphasizing beauty products, wellness offerings and conveniences such as FedEx package pick-ups and drop-offs.

Walgreens’ competitors are facing similar pressures. CVS Health said earlier this year it planned to slow the pace of store openings.

Going private would reverse a long history for a retailer with deep Chicago roots.

Walgreens has been a Chicago institution since 1901, when Charles R. Walgreen Sr. bought the Chicago drugstore on the city’s South Side where he worked as a pharmacist. By 1916, there were nine drugstores and 10 years later the 100th store opened, in Chicago.

It went public in 1927.

Shares initially surged on news of the talks. The stock closed at $61.21 a share, up 3% for the day.

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