The saga of Market Basket has, in a matter of weeks, gone from intriguing to intense to just plain sad. All without ever answering the question of how a family can be simply incapable of cutting a deal that will leave everyone wealthy.
While multisided negotiations dragged on this weekend, the side of the family aligned with Arthur S. Demoulas issued another salvo — this one accusing Arthur T. Demoulas of negotiating in bad faith. It bad-mouths him while professing a willingness to sell their share of the company to him — an odd negotiating strategy.
But then, everything in the recent history of this family drama has been unlikely. Ever since Arthur T. Demoulas was fired as CEO, prompting weeks of employee protests and the near-shutdown of the chain, little has gone according to prediction.
By now the narrative is familiar to much of Massachusetts. Arthur S. Demoulas’s side of the family controls 50.5 percent of the stock. Arthur T. Demoulas, whose side controls the other 49.5 percent, has long run the business. The employees want Arthur T. to return, while many besieged customers would just be happy to see somebody, anybody, stock the shelves.
The Demoulas family drama, which dates back decades, has often had its amusing or bizarre twists. But the amusement value of watching an odd group of billionaires at war with one another is slowly giving way to the sobering prospect that their enmity might just sink the company.
Some analysts believe it is losing value every day, and it’s hard to argue, given that the stores are barely open.
Besides Arthur T., there is another bidder for the chain: Delhaize Group SA, which owns the Hannaford chain. In a sense, they are in the best position of anyone in this mess. Either they will own Market Basket, or they will do battle against a seriously weakened rival.
But the business machinations are less important, by far, than the growing toll of the Market Basket war. The claims that poor customers are being hurt by the loss of the reasonably-priced chain are no joke. Part-time employees are seeing their hours cut or eliminated. Managers have been fired for their loyalty to Arthur T.
Thousands of families are being affected by this mess in a real way. The Demoulas family feuds used to be boardroom wars that sometimes spilled into a courtroom. This is a completely different beast. The fallout extends beyond the boardroom, to people who can least afford it.
Unfortunately, weeks of worker demonstrations and a de facto strike may have only hardened the bad blood between the Demoulases. A week ago, the two sides were rumored to be close to a deal. Now, no one knows.
Meanwhile, outside pressure hasn’t made any difference: Just ask the governor. Deval Patrick wrote a letter last week urging a swift resolution. But it isn’t his company, and the reaction of the Demoulases was polite, but nothing more. Goodness knows, these combatants could use a referee and perhaps the governor is a plausible one. But that’s not happening either, as far as anyone knows.
I’ve felt since early on in this dispute that the only reasonable way out is for Arthur T. Demoulas to win control of the company. He alone has the trust of the customers and credibility with the employees. However his cousins feel about him, his return is the only way to save Market Basket in any recognizable form.
And it would be a shame — unfathomable, really — for a company that was perfectly healthy to fall apart over sheer greed and bickering.
The sides keep claiming they are talking, and those must be fascinating conversations.
But for the shut-out employees and customers, this isn’t about winning or losing. They just want Market Basket back, and if that doesn’t happen soon it may not happen at all.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for Delhaize Group SA.