WeWork, once most valuable US start-up, succumbs to bankruptcy

NEW YORK – WeWork, the start-up whose meteoric rise and fall reshaped the office sector globally, sought United States bankruptcy protection on Monday, after its bets on companies using more of its office-sharing space soured.

Just four years removed from a US$47 billion (S$63 billion) valuation, it is perhaps the ultimate testament to the pitfalls of the venture capital mantra of growth at all costs.

Exactly how much investors are able to recoup – and the future of WeWork itself – now hinge on its ability to discharge scores of long-term leases the company signed during its headier days.

WeWork in a statement said it has entered into a restructuring agreement with key stakeholders to drastically reduce its existing funded debt, and also intended to file recognition proceedings in Canada.

The company’s locations outside of the US and Canada, as well as its franchisees around the world, are not affected by these proceedings, it added.

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.

Shareholders, including billionaire Masayoshi Son’s SoftBank Group, are likely to see their equity stakes wiped out, while most creditors may recover just pennies on the dollar.

WeWork, which never posted a quarterly operating profit in its history, could not cut costs fast enough to support its operations.

The disruption wrought by Covid-19 and a surge in telecommuting ultimately proved too much.

WeWork’s shares have fallen about 98.5 per cent so far in 2023.

Profitability has remained elusive as the company 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.

In a filing with the New Jersey bankruptcy court, WeWork listed estimated assets and liabilities in the range of US$10 billion to US$50 billion.

“WeWork could use provisions of the US bankruptcy code to rid itself of onerous leases,” law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP said in a note to landlords on its website in August. Some landlords are bracing themselves for a significant impact.

“As part of today’s filing, WeWork is requesting the ability to reject the leases of certain locations, which are largely non-operational, and all affected members have received advanced notice,” the company said in a statement.