WeWork, the SoftBank Group-backed start-up whose rise and fall reshaped the office sector globally, sought US bankruptcy protection on Monday, after its speculation that companies would use more of its office-sharing space soured.
The move represents an admission by SoftBank, the Japanese technology group that owns about 60 per cent of WeWork and has invested billions of dollars in its turnaround, that the company cannot survive unless it renegotiates its pricey leases in bankruptcy.
Profitability has remained elusive as WeWork grapples with its expensive leases and corporate clients cancelling because some employees work from home.
Paying for space consumed 74 per cent of WeWork's revenue in the second quarter of 2023.
The company reported estimated assets and liabilities ranging from $10 billion to $50 billion, according to a bankruptcy filing.
“WeWork could use provisions of the US bankruptcy code to rid itself of onerous leases,” law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft said in a note to landlords on its website in August. Some landlords are bracing for a significant impact.
Under its founder Adam Neumann, WeWork grew to be the most valuable US start-up, worth $47 billion. It attracted investments from blue-chip investors, including SoftBank and venture capital firm Benchmark, as well as the backing of big Wall Street Banks, including JP Morgan Chase.
Mr Neumann's pursuit of breakneck growth at the expense of profits, and revelations about his eccentric behaviour, led to his removal and the derailment of an initial public offering in 2019.
SoftBank was forced to double down on its investment in WeWork, and tapped property veteran Sandeep Mathrani as the start-up's chief executive.
In 2021, SoftBank cut a deal to take WeWork public through a merger with a blank-cheque acquisition company at an $8 billion valuation.
WeWork managed to amend 590 leases, saving about $12.7 billion in fixed lease payments. But this was not enough to compensate for the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, which kept office workers at home.
Many of its landlords, who were also feeling the squeeze, had little incentive to give WeWork a break on the terms of their leases.
While WeWork had some success in signing up large conglomerates as clients, many of its customers were start-ups and smaller businesses, which cut their spending as inflation soared and economic prospects soured.
Adding to WeWork's woes was competition from its own landlords. Commercial property companies that traditionally only entered into long-term rent agreements started offering short and flexible leases to cope with the downturn in the office sector.
Mr Mathrani was succeeded as WeWork chief executive this year by former investment banker and private equity executive David Tolley, who as chief executive of Intelsat helped the debt-stricken satellite communications provider emerge from bankruptcy in 2022.
WeWork engaged in debt restructurings, yet this was not enough to stave off its bankruptcy.
The company last week secured a seven-day extension from its creditors on an interest payment, to win more time to negotiate with them.