After Artie T., CEOs wonder if employees are in their corner
W hen Market Basket’s 25,000 employees took to the picket lines to save their CEO, auto king Herb Chambers couldn’t help but think: Would my workers do the same for me?
“I would like to believe they all would,” said Chambers, “but I would question that.”
Wow. A brutally honest answer — from a car dealer no less.
The turmoil at Market Basket sparked corporate soul-searching in corner offices everywhere. Employee protests and a customer boycott crippled the popular grocery chain over the summer. The message: Don’t put profits before people.
CEOs, in particular, had to feel unworthy when compared with mythical Market Basket leader Arthur T. Demoulas, whose ouster inspired the movement. Employee after employee recounted how Good Arthur paid well, knew their names, and asked about their families.
To Steve Sheinkopf, who runs Yale Appliance and Lighting in Dorchester, Artie T.’s genius is remembering who he is.
“It’s important on a basic level to show your humanity,” said Sheinkopf. “You may be the boss, but it doesn’t make you less human.”
Sheinkopf said the simple stuff matters to staff. That means having honest conversations, going to employee weddings, giving advice, keeping your door open, not talking down. In other words, “stuff our parents taught us,” said Sheinkopf.
For Mark Novota, managing partner at Wequassett Resort and Golf Club, the Market Basket story reminded him about the importance of creating a strong culture — from the bottom up.
That’s something the Cape Cod property takes seriously. So seriously that Wequassett turns the concept of the traditional organizational chart on its head. Novota and other executives are seen to occupy the bottom, while the front-line workers — housekeepers, waiters, receptionists — sit at the top.
The logic: Anybody who interacts with guests has more impact on the company’s success than those in the front office. Like the grocery industry, the hospitality business hinges on how well you treat your customers.
Wequassett shapes its culture through two extensive employee surveys a year — 40 to 50 questions each — so managers continuously get feedback.
If a crisis like Market Basket’s ever hit the resort, Novota likes to think employees “would be in our corner.”
Valuing employees is the biggest takeaway for Meg O’Leary, cofounder of InkHouse. When she started the PR firm with Beth Monaghan, O’Leary was just grateful that people were willing to take a chance on them. Seven years and nearly 70 employees later, O’Leary still marvels at the idea.
“They still want to take a bet on us. I consider that a privilege,” said O’Leary. “As soon as you make employees feel that they are lucky to work here, that’s when things go wrong.”
For Chambers, the lesson of Artie T. is that no matter how big your company gets, employees deserve face time with the CEO. It’s something that Chambers makes sure he does, holding a monthly breakfast for 500 sales staff and getting out to his stores as much as possible. It’s especially important when your name is on 54 dealerships.
The question Chambers doesn’t ever want to hear is: “Is there really a Herb Chambers?”
He, like so many others, was mesmerized by the spectacle of Market Basket’s rank-and-file workers standing up for a beloved boss who was pushed out by his rival cousin.
The Market Basket drama had a fairy tale ending, with Arthur T. and his family buying out the rest of the company from the other faction.
As good as Chambers believes he is to his employees — his company has made the Top Places to Work list five times — he has no illusions about his workers risking their jobs for him.
“Do I think my people would do that? No,” he said. But he never expects to put that to the test. “I don’t have a cousin who owns a part of the company either.”