To understand the weird drama that has seized the Market Basket company, it helps to have seen Arthur T. Demoulas march through the produce section.
We toured the Chelsea store together last summer, during an earlier chapter of the fight that has pitted his wing of the family against the one led by his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas. I figured seeing him in his element would be more interesting than talking to him in some downtown conference room. But the connection between the magnate and his employees was frankly shocking.
Demoulas knew almost everyone’s name. He knew the name of the guy cutting meat whose wife had just completed chemotherapy and asked about her with obvious concern. Customers came up to him and hugged him, cheered him on. The interactions were too numerous and spontaneous to be staged.
At that point, Arthur T. was barely holding off an attempted ouster led by his cousins. They were demanding that he curb the company’s generosity to the help and raise prices, which he was refusing to do. “I’m the single largest shareholder in the company,” he said then. “I stand to benefit the most in dollars and cents. But I don’t measure in dollars and cents.”
He prevailed, for a while. With the Demoulas clan, all victories are provisional.
I haven’t been surprised to see the employees of Market Basket rally in support of Arthur T. the past few weeks. I’m not sure how they win this battle, but they support the Demoulas they believe has supported them.
The latest major twist came Wednesday, when Arthur T. announced that he was making a bid to buy the 50.5 percent of the company that his branch of the family doesn’t control. The prospects are uncertain, though the family’s decades of fighting renders the notion of a painless solution unlikely.
In the past couple of weeks, Arthur T. has emerged in the public eye as the “good Arthur,” while his Arthur S. is now “bad Arthur.” That’s probably simplistic; there has been enough blood on the floor over their long-running feud to embarrass both of them. When two lawyers were disbarred for misconduct during an earlier chapter of the war, they were representing “good Arthur.” It takes a fair amount to get disbarred, but the Demoulas fights have been take-no-prisoners affairs.
Left hanging in the squabble between the wealthy Demoulases have been their employees and now their customers. It’s easy to see why the employees love Arthur T., who has been generous to them to a degree that drives his relatives crazy. One of the acts that drew their ire was replacing $46 million that their profit-sharing plan lost in the market during the 2008 financial meltdown. Arthur T. thought it was money the employees were entitled to. His cousins argued, not unreasonably, that investments sometimes go sour.
The stores, by all accounts, are suffering. They are suddenly full of empty shelves, and consumers are finding that there isn’t much to buy. Nobody wants to see Market Basket go under.
I’ve always had a hard time understanding why billions of dollars can’t be split peacefully, why a company that makes plenty of money can’t be run without such acrimony. But clearly they can’t, at least not in this case.
The family needs a clean break; Market Basket needs a single owner. It’s pretty obvious who it ought to be. The people who go to work there every day are clearly willing to sacrifice their jobs for the side they support. They’re probably good judges of character.