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Fleet Farm may be sold to KKR, the king of scorched earth capitalism

Republican congressional candidate Stewart Mills is said to be selling his company to a private equity firm with a legendary disregard for employees.

Republican congressional candidate Stewart Mills is said to be selling his company to a private equity firm with a legendary disregard for employees.

Eight weeks ago Stewart Mills III assured that whoever bought Mills Fleet Farm would be a benevolent employer, just like the three generations of his family who've run the show. 

"We care very much about our employees and we want to make sure whoever the new owners are they take very good care of them," Mills told the Duluth Tribune in October. The employees "have taken very good care of us."

But Mills, Fleet Farm's CEO and a GOP congressional candidate in northeast Minnesota, may be about to sell the company to one of the darkest knights of labor, KKR.  

The private equity firm, whose reputation for treating labor as disposable dates back almost 30 years, is reported to be the frontrunner to acquire the retailer's 36 stores for somewhere in the neighborhood of $1 billion. According to Reuters, the acquisition is predicated upon KKR securing the necessary financing.

"A deal could be announced before the end of the year," the news outlet wrote, but cautioned "there was no certainty there will be an agreement."

KKR's scorched earth brand of capitalism is well-documented. The firm starred in the 1989 book Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco. Written by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar of the Wall Street Journal, the book tells the story of KKR's leveraged buyout of the cookie and cig conglomerate. Under KKR's shepherding, 46,000 Nabisco employees got pink slips.   

It's a repetitive story. A Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles in 1990 by Susan Faludi detailed workers' suffering as the result of KKR's acquisition of Safeway. Faludi's expose showed how longtime workers had been discarded in the pursuit of a fatter bottom line. One former grocery store employee was living in a homeless shelter. One committed suicide. Yet another who'd saved the company $1.6 million by inventing a new cooling system had been laid off. In the Dallas area alone, KKR canned 8,600 Safeway employees. 

How Fleet Farm workers would fare at its locations dotting Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North Dakota remains uncertain. 

KKR spokeswoman Cara Kleiman declined to comment. Messages left at Fleet Farm headquarters went unreturned.