Ashley Stewart

After twice filing for bankruptcy, Ashley Stewart Inc. turned its focus to e-commerce, staged a comeback and attracted a new majority investor. The turnaround may serve as a model for other struggling retailers.

Investment firm the Invus Group LLC acquired a majority stake in the plus-size fashion retailer from Clearlake Capital Group and FirePine Group. Financial terms were not disclosed. Clearlake purchased a majority stake in Secaucus, New Jersey-based Ashley Stewart in 2014 out of bankruptcy, the firm’s second filing. Ashley Stewart previously filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Ashley Stewart, founded in 1991, once owned 168 stores, but now operates 89. Under Clearlake’s and FirePine’s ownership, Ashley Stewart reached profitability mostly through digital marketing, including investing more in e-commerce, mobile and social media.

Ashley Stewart CEO James Rhee, who used to work at private equity firm J.W. Childs, founded FirePine in 2009 and became Ashley Stewart’s chief executive in 2013. He will remain in his role. New York-based Invus previously invested in Weight Watchers and Bluemercury.

Retailers have been struggling to keep brick-and-mortar stores afloat as they face more online competition. Companies, such as American Apparel, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. (NYSE: AEO), Sears Holdings Corp. (Nasdaq; SHLD) and Wet Seal, have been closing stores, selling assets and going bankrupt. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and Sports Authority filed earlier in 2016. More bankruptcies in the retail sector are expected in 2016.

In February, DSW Inc. (NYSE: DSW), the footwear and accessories retailer, announced it was buying Ebuys Inc. to expand into online and international markets. And in May, Sears announced it had hired Citigroup Inc. (NYSE: C) and LionTree Advisors to consider plans for selling off assets to generate cash and in June, Bluestar Alliance invested in Bebe Stores Inc. 

Robert W. Baird & Co. served as financial adviser to Ashley Stewart and O’Melveny & Myers served as legal counsel. Morgan Lewis served as legal adviser to FirePine Group and Patterson Belknap represented Invus.

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