Arthur T. Demoulas and thousands of exhilarated Market Basket employees streamed into warehouses, offices, and stores across New England Thursday to begin the task of rebuilding a company struggling with barren shelves, strained vendor relationships, and a mountain of new debt.
Demoulas will need to borrow at least $1 billion to buy Market Basket from his relatives, but company executives immediately sought to reassure customers that the supermarket chain’s cornerstone philosophy of low food prices would not change.
“I see that business model staying in place,” said David McLean, operations manager for Market Basket. “Arthur has always said, ‘Our job is to look out for the customers’ best interests, even when they’re not looking.’ ”
A supermarket industry analyst said that approach could be a challenge. “Being strapped with a lot of debt could make it tough to be the same old Market Basket, with good compensation and low prices,” David Livingston of DJL Research in Milwaukee said.
Demoulas returned to work a day after a $1.64 billion agreement to purchase the Market Basket shares of rival family members, back in charge of the company whose board fired him in June and triggered an employee walkout that paralyzed the business.
“By working together — and only together — we will succeed,” Demoulas said during a brief speech at the company’s headquarters in Tewksbury.
Demoulas spoke to an enthusiastic gathering of hundreds of employees from a podium fixed on a pickup truck at about 8:30 a.m. Some employees in the crowd wore the kinds of T-shirts that became familiar at picket scenes over the past month, proclaiming “I support Artie T.” and “Market Basket Strong.”
Company employees faced an enormous challenge to restart the supermarket business after weeks of pickets and protests by sympathetic customers. McLean said he and other top managers were working to get stores fully restocked within seven days; Demoulas did not conduct interviews Thursday.
Vendors were being encouraged to ship directly to stores, to speed the resupply effort. Warehouses were prepared to operate around the clock to help process orders and deliver more food into stores. McLean said a premium was being placed on restocking empty produce shelves, meat racks, and seafood cases.
While many Market Basket employees returned full of adrenaline Thursday, they also faced plenty of problems that festered during their protest.
“We can’t log in to our computers,” said Kayla Trott, an employee in the company’s accounts payable department. For an hour after she arrived, Trott said, employees were sorting through paperwork — invoices, e-mail printouts, purchase orders — that was “scattered all over the office,” often on the wrong employees’ desks.
Amid many displays of hard work and unity among returning workers, there were also moments of discord between employees who walked off the job in unity with Arthur T. and those who worked through the dispute.
“People do what they do for their own reasons,” said Ann Rogers, an employee in the accounts payable department. Still, she said, the employees who stayed on the job “weren’t a part of this whole process” to bring Arthur T. and other managers back to the company.
McLean said he and other top executives have urged employees to put down vengeful instincts and focus on the days of work ahead. “Emotions can get the better of people, and it’s hard to keep that in check,” he said. “People need to understand that we’re here for a purpose, and that’s to serve customers.”
The six-week standoff at Market Basket affected 25,000 employees who work for the company in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. The potential effects of a protracted walkout — or the possibility of even more dire developments — led the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire to offer their assistance in resolving the dispute.
“There are [a] lot of people who work at Market Basket and who were at risk of losing their jobs because of the disruption in the company, and much of that disruption seemed avoidable and resolvable, and it was,” Governor Deval Patrick said in a conference call Thursday. “We got to a good place, and, more to the point, they got to a good place.”
Patrick said the dispute between the factions of the Demoulas family had been “more complicated than I anticipated.”
The authority of Arthur T. Demoulas to run the business in the months between an agreement and a completed transaction — while two chief executives who had replaced him remained on the job — became a crucial issue to a settlement, Patrick said.
Now managers and other employees face many challenges to restarting Market Basket’s operations. Those efforts include repairing a broken distribution network, creating new vendor contracts, catching up on unpaid bills, and getting fresh produce, seafood, and meat into stores from suppliers across the country.
“It’s almost like opening a new store,” said Livingston, the industry analyst. “Now multiply that by 71.”
Fortunately for Market Basket, some alert contractors got a head start on their work.
Steve Theriault, owner of a Las Cruces, N.M., trucking company, left Dallas on Tuesday afternoon with 40,000 pounds of potatoes when a food broker tipped him that the company’s stalemate was ending. He and his son, Chris, took turns behind the wheel on the 1,790-mile journey to Andover, arriving at 7 a.m. Thursday.
“When my son brought in the paperwork, they were high-fiving him and cheering,” said Theriault, owner of Frenchville Connection Inc. “We were the first delivery.”
At Market Basket’s headquarters, McLean and other employees got to work at midnight Wednesday night, 45 minutes after the announcement of the sale and Arthur T.’s reinstatement. McLean said managers quickly began enacting store-restocking plans they had drafted in anticipation of a deal.
Andy Lien, a director of the perishable warehouse in Andover, called in about 30 employees to return to work early Thursday to count inventory, check dates on all of the products, and receive shipments from vendors. His entire crew of 110 workers planned to return Friday, beginning at 3 a.m. to load trucks.
Lien expects to send off between 80 and 90 full trucks throughout the day Friday. He said he is waiting to send trucks until he has enough food to fill them. The warehouse will remain open during the weekend as workers split 12-hour shifts until the stores are reasonably well-supplied.