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Market Basket’s co-CEOs sit on the sidelines

James Gooch and Felicia Thornton are co-chief executives of the Market Basket grocery chain.

James Gooch and Felicia Thornton are co-chief executives of the Market Basket grocery chain.

There are a lucky few who can collect seven-figure salaries for doing little work. Mostly, they’re backup quarterbacks in the NFL.

Felicia Thornton and James Gooch don’t wear shoulder pads. But they are the corporate equivalent of benchwarmers, collecting tens of thousands of dollars weekly to stand on the sidelines.

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Gooch and Thornton are co-chief executives of the Market Basket grocery chain, which sounds important. But the starting quarterback at Market Basket is now Arthur T. Demoulas, who retook control of the family’s empire last week after striking a deal to buy out his warring cousin, Arthur S.

Gooch and Thornton’s role for now is to keep an eye on Arthur T. until the sale closes, probably several months off.

“I really don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” said Tom Gordon, a grocery supervisor who is back to work at Market Basket headquarters, after being fired by the executive tandem. “Then again, I didn’t know what they were doing before.”

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Gooch and Thornton were hired to oversee the 71-store chain in June after Arthur T. was fired. Now, with the ownership tables freshly turned, the well-paid CEOs’ status is a topic of speculation.

They continue to report to work, but relations with the reinstated staff are both awkward and frosty.

RELATED: Curiosity leads shoppers to Market Basket

‘I haven’t heard from them. They’re there, but Artie T. is the boss. We answer to him.’

Bob Medeiros, a district supervisor 
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A company spokesman said Gooch and Thornton remain Market Basket’s official signatories for legal documents, such as vendor contracts, even though they do not have authority to veto business deals made by Demoulas and his management team.

There is a certain comedy to the situation, but the awkward overlap between Demoulas’s return and Gooch and Thornton’s exit is the product of a serious sticking point in the sale negotiations.

Governor Deval Patrick, who helped mediate talks, said in a briefing last week that the executives are there for “fiduciary oversight.”

After decades of legal battles that included a $500 million judgment for wrongs committed by Arthur T.’s side of the family, his relatives were reluctant to give him unchecked power while they technically still own a majority of the company.

At the same time, the sellers recognized that handing the reins back to Arthur T. was the only way to stabilize a business that had been paralyzed by six weeks of demonstrations, employee walkouts, and customer boycotts.

Thus the odd arrangement of one boss to make the decisions and two more to rubber stamp them.

“This is a highly unusual situation,” said Daniel Korschun, a fellow at the Center for Corporate Governance at Drexel University. “The fact that there is little precedent for this sort of transfer means that they will have to make this up as they go along.”

Gooch and Thornton will be well compensated for their willingness to improvise. They declined to speak publicly, or disclose their compensation.

But chief executives at a business the size of Market Basket would typically command annual salaries of between $1 million and $3 million, according to Clark Waterfall, the managing director of BSG Team Ventures, an executive search firm in Boston.

RELATED: Arthur T. Demoulas note thanks customers, employees

During a meeting with staff in June, soon after they took over, Gooch and Thornton were upfront about having guaranteed contracts that will pay them for three years of work, even if their tenures end after only a few months on the job, according to store managers who were in attendance.

In the meantime, Gooch and Thornton continue their daily routine at company headquarters, a low-slung brick office building in Tewksbury. Employees who work there say that Gooch and Thornton moved into an empty office far from Arthur T. Demoulas’s when they took over and have stayed there, quietly going about their business while managers they fired just a few weeks ago resume the task of running the company.

The resulting dynamic has been predictably strained, though some Market Basket employees confess to feeling a bit sorry for a pair who stepped into a no-win situation.

Anyone replacing Arthur T. — especially outside hires — would have been ostracized and resented.

Gordon, among those who received termination letters by courier on a weekend in July, traded “good morning” greetings with Thornton last Friday. That was the extent of their exchange, he said.

Steve Paulenka, another deputy fired by Gooch and Thornton and since rehired, said he has no need — or desire — to talk to the executives who signed his walking papers. So he doesn’t.

Neither does distribution supervisor Tom Trainor. He typically arrives for work around 6:30 a.m. and often leaves at 9 a.m. to visit some of the 37 stores in his charge. The odd schedule isn’t designed to avoid Gooch and Thornton — but it’s a perk.

“We don’t really interact,” said Trainor. “I’ve seen them from afar, but I haven’t bumped into them in the hallway or anything. That could be uncomfortable.”

To Market Basket workers outside of the headquarters, Gooch and Thornton are all but invisible now.

The stream of memos about cutting hours, withholding pay, and returning to work have dried up. The old chain of command is back in place, with no discernible link to the CEOs.

“I haven’t heard from them,” said Bob Medeiros, a district supervisor who works at the company’s warehouse for perishables in Andover. “They’re there, but Artie T. is the boss. We answer to him.”

At some point, out of necessity or humanity, the executives and Demoulas’s management team are bound to break the ice.

Gordon doesn’t expect to get pally, but said he would “certainly be cordial” if Gooch or Thornton were to strike up a conversation.

“I’m not looking to get into a pissing contest and say, ‘Hey, you fired me, and now I’m back,’ ” he said.

“It’s not really our culture to be rude.”

Callum Borchers
can be reached at callum.borchers@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.
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