Bang Billionaire’s Empire of Caffeine Crashes Into Bankruptcy

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(Bloomberg) — It should have been a weekend of celebration for billionaire Jack Owoc.

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On Instagram, he blew out the candles atop a massive birthday cake dedicated to his blockbuster product, Bang Energy. On TikTok rolled a medley of videos showing women clutching cans of the drink and of Owoc, crowdsurfing and pumping his fists in the air.

But the cheery posts from Sunday, which marked the energy drink’s 10-year anniversary, obscured a far more somber reality. That same day, Owoc signed papers to put his company into bankruptcy protection.

A combination of legal damages, a failed distribution deal and stagnant sales has overwhelmed the Miami-based energy-drink maker and its founder, unraveling what some observers call the most improbable success story in the beverage industry.

Court papers filed in Florida on Monday reveal that Bang’s parent company owes more than $500 million to its arch-rival, Monster Beverage Co., and a small California juice maker. It owes another $115 million to PepsiCo Inc., its old distributor.

Meanwhile, Bang’s share of the energy-drink market, once nearing 10%, now sits just above 6%.

In a statement, Owoc vowed to keep the business going and said the company will emerge stronger. He disclosed that Bang’s lenders have put up another $100 million, and that the firm has pieced together a new distribution network that will take over once PepsiCo stops shipping Bang Energy on its trucks this month.

“We are coming like a freight train and cannot be stopped,” Owoc said.

Mounting Challenges

But Bang’s challenges are mounting. Taken together, the debt to PepsiCo and the cumulative legal damages, which could still swell, likely swallows up most of the revenue Owoc’s company collected last year from sales of Bang Energy, its dominant product, according to estimates by Bloomberg News. And industry insiders point out that the energy-drink category has changed since Bang’s astronomic rise began in 2018: There are now lots of good-for-you brands, and distributors increasingly want to carry several of them, not just one.

Some current and former employees doubt that Owoc, whose fortune is valued at about $3 billion by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, can get the company out of the mess he landed it in. Vital Pharmaceuticals Inc., Bang’s parent, listed total assets and liabilities of as much as $1 billion each in its bankruptcy petition.

Bang has been in financial disrepair since at least March, when it defaulted on hundreds of millions of dollars in debt, bankruptcy court documents show. Bang’s lenders held off on seizing their collateral — and even advanced $60 million of new money — while the company searched for a rescue deal.

But so far, no one has been willing to fully bail out Owoc’s kingdom. Bang’s advisers looked for months for either a new equity investment or fresh debt, but found no takers, according to court papers. The company owes more than $340 million to existing lenders.

Bang’s current lenders have agreed to put up $100 million of new money to fund the bankruptcy, but there’s a catch: Owoc will have to begin trying to sell the company if he can’t find a way to refinance all of its high-ranking debt in the next three-and-a-half months, court papers show.

Those in the beverage world have wondered for months how long Bang could stave off a Chapter 11 filing as bad news kept stacking up. In April, the parent company was ordered to pay $175 million to Monster and Orange Bang, the California juice maker, for breach of contract and trademark infringement. The ruling also required Owoc’s company to pay them a 5% royalty on all future US sales of Bang Energy.

Pepsi Break

In June, Owoc announced that the distribution deal with PepsiCo, which had gone from rosy to sour, was over. He didn’t disclose, though, that ending the agreement prematurely had cost his firm $115 million.

And in September, a California jury found that Bang had for years made false advertising claims about its eponymous product and ordered the company to pay $293 million to Monster. The jury also held Owoc personally guilty for that violation.

That came just weeks after reports that Vital was in talks with Keurig Dr Pepper Inc. about a potential sale — discussions that quickly fell apart. Former Bang executives said privately they were skeptical that Owoc would ever give up control of his company.

Owoc, 61, has for decades sold the image of himself as the archetype of a self-made American entrepreneur. He opened a small sports supplements store, called VitaHouse, in a Miami strip mall in 1993. He grew it into a retailer with tens of millions of dollars of revenue, targeting a narrow niche of customers focused on weightlifting and fitness.

Social Star

That shifted in 2012 with the launch of Bang Energy — an energy drink stuffed with three cups of coffee’s worth of caffeine and other supposedly health-boosting ingredients. After a few years, sales exploded thanks to a flood-the-zone social-media strategy targeting young consumers and successful efforts to build a nationwide network of distributors. And Owoc, now a billionaire, began turning himself into a social-media star.

But as the coronavirus pandemic swept over the US, the tide turned. Sales plateaued and Owoc blamed PepsiCo, which had struck a deal to be Bang’s exclusive distributor of its energy drinks. (PepsiCo has said it fulfilled its contractual obligations and that Owoc’s critique is misguided.) Then followed the steep legal judgments.

Can Owoc mount a comeback? Gerry Khermouch, the editor of Beverage Business Insights, says he’s learned over the years to never write off the man from Miami.

“Jack Owoc had his back to the wall a decade ago when he launched Bang Energy,” Khermouch wrote in an email, referring to a period of severe financial troubles Owoc has spoken about publicly. “At this point, his team has reassembled a credible third-party distribution network, so there may be plenty of life left in that brand after the Pepsi fiasco.”

But inside the company, the outlook is decidedly gloomier, according to current and former employees who spoke with Bloomberg News. They asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution by Owoc.

Some employees have departed in recent weeks. Others still at the company described feelings of sadness and embarrassment. One former executive who remains in touch with old colleagues wrote that all hope was gone.

The bankruptcy is Vital Pharmaceuticals Inc., 22-17842, US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Florida (Fort Lauderdale).

(Updates with pre-bankruptcy financing efforts beginning in eleventh paragraph.)

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