No accord in Market Basket discussions
Sides at odds over terms of sale
The cousins at the heart of the Market Basket feud negotiated a possible sale of the grocery chain late into Sunday night, but a deal remained elusive even as the stalemate continued to drain millions of dollars a day from the company.
The parties were still at odds over several terms of Arthur T. Demoulas’s $1.5 billion offer to buy the 50.5 percent of the company owned by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, and other family members, according to people familiar with the talks.
A board meeting had been scheduled for Sunday night, but the session was called off once it became clear Market Basket shareholders were not going to finalize a stock purchase agreement to transfer ownership of the company. The meeting’s postponement was yet another twist in a weekslong drama that continues to spool out unpredictably.
“Everybody is surprised that it’s taken this long, and I don’t think more weeks of nothing happening is prudent or is even fiscally possible for the company,” said John Davis, a professor at Harvard Business School. “There has to be some arrangement if they make a deal . . . for Arthur T. to be reinstated and for the company to get back on its feet.”
Both sides of the Demoulas family have expressed optimism that they can bring an end to their dispute, but prospects for an agreement remain uncertain. On Friday, the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire indicated an agreement could be reached by the end of the weekend.
Arthur T. Demoulas told the Globe Friday that “there is nothing that stands in the way of getting this done this weekend.”
Market Basket’s board of directors could call a meeting at any point in the next few days to act on a deal. The company’s shareholders — all members of the Demoulas family or extended family — must first agree to the terms of a sale, and then the board could take action to get the company running again.
That would involve putting Arthur T., whose firing as president in June triggered the crisis, back into the management ranks. But when he would come back, and in what role, has been a sticking point of the negotiations, according to those briefed on the talks.
Many of the company’s employees have said they will not return to work until Arthur T. is reinstated. Their walkout and a customer boycott have strangled operations and kept fresh food out of stores.
Arthur T.’s offer, outlined for the Globe by his advisers Friday, removed a key obstacle by providing a letter from a private equity firm that is prepared to lend more than $500 million to help buy the remaining half of the company. The identity of the firm was not disclosed.
The rest of the money for the purchase would come from cash provided by Arthur T. and his sisters, as well as a mortgage loan secured by the company’s considerable real estate holdings in New England.
If an agreement is not reached soon, the financial consequences could be catastrophic for the supermarket chain. The company, losing millions of dollars a day, faces the prospect of closing stores and terminating many of its 25,000 employees in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Business experts warned that any deal that took shape during the weekend could take days, or even several weeks, to close. The outside financiers assisting Arthur T. Demoulas in his bid will want to evaluate not just Market Basket’s bank accounts, but its contracts, relationships with vendors, and obligations like worker pensions, said Frank Hoy, a professor of innovation and entrepreneurship at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
“My guess is that Arthur T. has probably lined up some people who do trust him, that probably he’s worked with in the past in some way, that are ready to move forward on this more quickly,” said Hoy. “It could be done literally in days, but I wouldn’t count on that.”
In the interim, the grocery chain’s management is in question. Davis, the Harvard Business School professor, said the management of companies typically does not turn over until a deal is completely vetted. In this instance, though, he said it would be “irresponsible” for the buyer and seller not to find some way to install Arthur T. Demoulas and his management team at the company’s helm while the deal is being closed.
“In the meantime, shelves are bare, people are out of work, customers are hurting, so do the right thing: Put the deal in place,” said Davis. “Put some penalties in place, in case either side backs away from it, and get the company going.”