What is striking about the company feud over the executive leadership of the Market Basket supermarket chain is not the length of the dispute or the passion of the warring factions. Such emotional and bitter fights are common in family-owned businesses. What stands out is the flood of genuine and deeply felt affection for CEO Arthur T. Demoulas from employees and members of the communities served by Market Basket stores.
When word got out that the Arthur S. Demoulas faction had managed to schedule a board of directors' vote on removing Arthur T. Demoulas as CEO, employees swiftly organized a campaign to intervene on behalf of their boss. They collected 35,000 signatures on a petition to keep Arthur T. (The company has fewer than 22,000 employees.) An estimated 2,000 employees rallied at the Andover, Mass., site of last Thursday's board meeting to express their support for him.
Among those attending the rally was John Conway, 56, the manager of the Portsmouth Market Basket. "They treat you like family, so we're treating him like family and supporting him," he told the Boston Herald.
Employee turnover is extremely high in the supermarket industry. Yet go into just about any Market Basket and you will find employees who have worked there for years, even decades. Conway, the Portsmouth manager, has worked for the company for 35 years. It is not unusual to find assistant managers who have been with the company for a quarter-century.
Demoulas offers his employess profit-sharing and gives them the opportunity to build real careers. While many retail chains hire managers straight out of business school, limiting promotion opportunities for lower-level employees, it is common to find Market Basket managers who started as baggers or cashiers and worked their way up.
Steve Paulenka, who works at the company's offices in Chelmsford, Mass., arrived in Andover with some co-workers before 5:30 a.m. on Thursday. They wanted to be sure their support for their boss was not missed. "It was like a papal procession," Paulenka said of the CEO's arrival for the board meeting.
Support for Arthur T. goes beyond employees. James Cook, executive director of the Lowell Plan, a nonprofit economic development group that has 80 member businesses, told the Lowell Sun that Arthur T. was so beloved and such a positive force in Lowell, where the Market Basket chain originated, that he would be "impossible to replace."
Whatever the merits of the family complaints against Arthur T. Demoulas' management (and the merits are questionable, based on reporting to date), it is undoubtedly true that the company's top executive has earned the loyalty and trust of his employees and has put the company in a tremendous economic position. That is a remarkable combination for any business leader.