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With recapitalization, Three Bears to build more stores, officials say

KUAC file photo
People who live in the Healy area celebrated the opening of Three Bears Alaska's 10th store in December 2017, because they no longer had to drive 100 miles to Fairbanks to get groceries. Most Three Bears stores are located in small to midsize communities around Alaska.

Deal will allow Wasilla-based grocery/retail chain to ‘maintain Alaska control over an Alaskan company’

Officials with the Wasilla-based grocery- and retail-store chain Three Bears Alaska say they intend to expand operations in the state now that they’ve entered into a deal with a private-equity firm based in the Pacific Northwest.

Three Bears Alaska owns and operates nine retail outlets around the state, and one in Montana. They’re mostly grocery stores, and some have gas stations or hardware or sporting-goods shops. Thery’re located in small to midsize communities, sometimes the only grocers in town. And Three Bears officials say we’ll soon be seeing more of the stores, now that the company has completed a deal with Seattle-based Westward Partners.

“Folks should certainly expect to see more Three Bears stores going up around the state of Alaska in the next one, two, three years,” says James Cartales, the managing director of Cascadia Capital, an investment banking firm that’s also based in Seattle. “And that’s what this deal was really all about.”

Three Bears Alaska
The Weisz family established Three Bears when it opened its first store in Tok in 1980. The store got a facelift two years ago, and last October, the company completed construction of a hardware store next door.

Cascadia Capital announced the deal on March 17th. But Cartales and a Three Bears spokesperson both declined to say where the new stores may be built.

“When you’re working on real estate deals and things like that, you don’t want to give away all your plans,” he said in an interview last week.

Cartales and the company spokesperson both said in interviews last week that they couldn’t offer many details of the deal, for proprietary reasons. And that’s not unusual, says John Nofsinger. He’s the dean of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s College of Business and Public Policy.

“In this particular case,” he said, “we don’t have a lot of information, because this is a private-equity firm, and they’re helping to recapitalize Three Bears Alaska, which is also a private company. So they’re not required to tell us much of anything.”

But Nofsinger offered a few observations on the deal in an interview Friday, beginning with a definition of a recapitalization.

“A recapitalization is simply a major, substantial change in a company’s capital structure,” he said. “… There are different forms of capital. There’s the equity side, for a public company that would be like buying their stock. And then there’s debt.”

Cartales says the deal didn’t involve Westward Partners buying Three Bears debt. And the company spokesperson confirmed that the Weisz family, which launched the business in 1980, still retains majority ownership.

“There’s a diversified shareholder base of Alaskans, and they’ll maintain Alaska control over an Alaskan company,” he said.

Cartales says that means customers probably won’t notice much change in the operation of Three Bears stores. But he says they may see improvements, as the company continues to remodel its existing stores, like it did two years ago in Tok. That’s where Three Bears was founded in 1980, and where it built a hardware store in October. And in 2017, it opened its 10th store in Healy.

“As far as this transaction’s impact on them, it’s going to be business as usual,” he said. “There’s no change at the management level, there’s certainly no change at the store level.”

Cartales says customers shouldn’t worry about Three Bears raising prices as a result of the recapitalization. Nofsinger says that sometimes happens when a private-equity firm invests in a company. But Cartales says greater economies of scale may even drive prices down.

“As the business grows, they’re often able to get better pricing from the national brands and the distributors and supplier,” he said.

Cartales says some prices may rise because of inflation. And gasoline and other fuels may go up because of volatility in energy-markets. But not, he says, because of the recapitalization.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.