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July 26. 2014 7:47PM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Arthur T.'s Market Basket is homegrown in New England


Jesse Denis, who works at the Market Basket in Manchester, holds a sign at a rally in a parking lot in Tewksbury, Mass., to support ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas on Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook 


 

Most Market Basket shoppers have never met Arthur T. Demoulas. While he's become a household name in New England over the past couple of weeks, he and the company he once ran - and aims to regain - are notoriously publicity shy. In an age where even 10-year-olds have their own websites, Market Basket has none.

That's because Arthur T. is the kind of guy who cares more about learning who you are than telling you about himself. Store managers tout "ATD" as a CEO who spent a lot of time visiting the chain's 70-plus stores scattered throughout Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, pitching in to help stock shelves if he saw the need.

He's the kind of boss who asks you about your family and seems genuinely interested in the answer. Somebody who measures the success of his company not just on its profitability but also on the welfare of its employees and customers. A Market Basket district manager fired last Sunday compared Arthur T. to George Bailey, the fictional hero in "It's a Wonderful Life." Every time Arthur T. cuts prices, does an angel get his wings?

Like George Bailey - who needed divine intervention to be reminded of his life's worth - Arthur T. is a surely a flawed human just like everybody else. While he's reached near-sainthood status of late, we know he and his arch enemy cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, have resorted to fistfighting to settle their arguments on at least one occasion. But Arthur T. possesses a quality that trumps the leader of every major grocer in New England.

He's one of us.

When was the last time you thought that about someone who, like his cousin, is probably a billionaire? But we're talking about a local billionaire, one who still likes to get up and go to work every day. And while Arthur T.'s appearances at Market Basket stores were unannounced, if he regains his CEO post, there's a chance shoppers might bump into him someday while picking their produce (when the stores finally get some again).

If you want to meet the true top brass of Market Basket's closest rival in New Hampshire, you need to book an overseas flight. Hannaford President Brad Wise reports to the CEO of Delhaize America in North Carolina, which is part of an international grocery conglomerate based in Belgium.

Like Hannaford, Stop & Shop and Shaw's, Market Basket has deep New England roots. But the Tewksbury, Mass.-based company remains the only major grocery chain in the area under local ownership. Stop & Shop is owned by Ahold, a company based in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Shaw's is owned by Cerberus Capital Management, a New York-based private equity company.

It's not that being owned by an outside company makes it inherently inferior to a locally run one - you can still find employees with decades of service at Hannaford and the other chain grocery stores, which all connect with their communities through philanthropic efforts. But having the corporate base nearby keeps the decision-making truly local.

In the case of Market Basket, which is known for running a lean operation, it also creates strong pricing competition in an industry with already razor-thin profit margins. And that ultimately makes the consumer the winner, regardless of what store they choose to spend their dollars in.

Traditional grocers also face competition from natural food retailers like Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, which plans to open in Nashua next month, and Trader Joe's, which already operates in Nashua. Trader Joe's, the funky private-label store that has a cult following, was founded in California but since 1979 has been owned by Aldi Foods, a company based in Germany.

Aldi Foods co-founder Karl Albrecht died this month at 94. While shoppers visiting Trader Joe's probably never heard of him, they might appreciate his legacy. His company said Albrecht "was convinced that customers with a very limited income should be able to eat and drink quality food."

That's probably something Arthur T. would appreciate.

Mike Cote is business editor at the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.



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