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Originally published Saturday, December 14, 2013 at 8:08 PM

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Ghost of WaMu could be fruitful

An infusion of cash from investment powerhouse KKR sets the stage for potential acquisitions by the shell company that survives from Washington Mutual.


By Seattle Times business staff

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Unbelievable that the Times "Business Staff" are even remotely aware of this... MORE

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The ghost of Washington Mutual still walks the land, and it’s ready to go shopping.

WaMu, the huge Seattle-based thrift, became the nation’s largest bank failure in 2008, devastating employees and investors while ensuring years of lucrative legal wrangling for banking and restructuring experts. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. arranged for JPMorgan Chase to take over the nationwide WaMu banking franchise.

But one minor operating business remains in WMI Holdings Corp., as the shell corporation that used to own the bank is now called. More importantly, within WMI resides massive potential tax deductions that could be used to shelter the earnings of a big, profitable company — if only WMI had one.

The financial engineers at investment-banking powerhouse KKR are eager to walk down the aisle with this ghost, hoping for a fruitful future.

WMI disclosed last week that KKR has agreed to invest $10 million now and another $150 million during the next three years, which “would be used by the company to fund future acquisitions.” KKR also has rights to buy half of any stock offering up to $1 billion that WMI might make during that period.

Right now WMI, still based here, consists mostly of WM Mortgage Reinsurance, which is officially domiciled in Hawaii and is not issuing any new policies — “operated in runoff mode,” in insurance jargon. That insurance operation yielded about $6.8 million in net revenue for the nine months ended Sept. 30, while WMI reported a net loss of $7.2 million.

After years of skirmishing in bankruptcy court, WMI doled out assets to various WaMu creditors in a global settlement in 2012. Ownership of WMI itself was distributed too — about two thirds to former WaMu preferred stockholders, and almost 30 percent to the common stockholders, according to reports at the time.

The prize for KKR — and potentially for any long-suffering WaMu stockholders who still own a piece of WMI — is the nearly $6 billion in “net operating loss carry forwards” attributed to WMI.

That could offset the income from other businesses the company might acquire, and clearly some deals are in the cards.

Michael Willingham, the chairman of WMI’s reconstituted board of directors, said KKR’s expertise in raising money, running companies and making deals “will augment our ability to execute on our stated acquisition strategy.”

— Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

Recharge sparks idea

You can get almost anything out of a vending machine these days treats: drinks, toys, movies.

Now you can also get batteries — and recycle them.

Portland entrepreneur Charlie Kawasaki saw his daughter drain batteries night after night while reading with a flashlight under her covers and wanted a sustainable way to keep all those household batteries from ending up in landfills.

Months later, when his daughter’s nanny introduced him to Redbox, the DVD rental kiosk, Kawasaki had an epiphany.

He created Bettery, which runs kiosks that allow customers to purchase freshly charged batteries and then swap used for fresh whenever needed — convenience being the key to success.

“Our final goal is to have a kiosk everywhere you might find a Redbox,” he said.

The company partnered with Whole Foods and launched five battery kiosks in Portland and the Seattle area in April. Last month the company announced five new kiosks in Safeway stores around the Pacific Northwest. That takes the count up to 11, including a kiosk installed at Portland State University.

Each blue and white kiosk carries AA and AAA batteries. First-time customers pay $7.50 for a pack of four batteries that are dispensed in a blue reusable case. Every time the batteries are swapped out for a new pack, it costs $2.50. If a customer decides to stop using the batteries, $5 is refunded.

“Compared to a 4-pack of batteries in the grocery store where it is $4 to $6 each, we think this is a no-brainer,” Kawasaki said.

After some initial research, Kawasaki discovered that 3.5 billion regular household batteries are purchased each year. And even though manufacturing has improved, those batteries are made with chemicals that can seep into water supplies from landfills, Kawasaki said.

Which is where his Bettery kiosk comes into play.

Not only are the Bettery batteries cheaper, but they can be used 500 times and have reusable packaging, which diminishes the environmental impact and keeps more batteries out of landfills, Kawasaki said.

Single-use AA and AAA batteries can also be dropped off for recycling at the kiosk. And Bettery hosts battery collections once a month at each location — where any type of used battery can be recycled.

The company has collected 5,000 pounds since April. Bettery partners with Seattle-based Total Reclaim to recycle the used batteries.

Kawasaki, who’s been in the high-tech field for 30 years, was the chief technical officer at Portland communications company PacStar until going part time to focus on Bettery.

He officially formed Bettery in June 2011, secured startup funding in September 2012, and installed the first five kiosks in Whole Foods stores in April. Now, with 11 kiosks and a partnership with a national chain, he hopes the company will continue to expand.

A Whole Foods spokesperson said the company has been happy with the kiosks and is looking to put them into more stores in the Pacific Northwest.

Steve Frisby, president of the Northwest Division of Safeway, said that once the kiosks have been in use long enough to gauge customer response, the company will consider expanding to more locations as well.

— Coral Garnick: cgarnick@seattletimes.com



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