Saturday, August 16, 2014

Finding it Hard to Worry About Market Basket

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chroneicle on Friday, August 15, 2014.

By Bill Gouveia

            I have a shocking confession to make, one that may well fly in the face of public opinion and brand me an uncaring excuse for a human being.  But I’m going to share it anyway:

            I really don’t care if Market Basket ever reopens.

            I care about the people who stand to lose their jobs.  I care about the families they need to support.  I care about the vendors losing money, adjacent businesses losing potential customers, and the folks who now have to travel further and pay more for their groceries.

            But I really don’t care about Market Basket as an entity.  I’m seriously tired of the sad and tawdry tale the grocery chain has become.  I have little sympathy for a business that is daily reducing its own value and constantly and consistently shooting itself in the foot.

            I confess that I did not shop at Market Basket much when it was operating.  However, I have family members and friends who love the place.  The value they provided to shoppers was unquestioned, the quality of their merchandise good, and their popularity undeniable.

            But hard as I have tried, I fail to see what the current ownership has done that is so outrageous.  I don’t understand why they are now somehow expected to give up control of their own company.

            I believe Arthur T. Demoulas is every bit the wonderful human being he has been portrayed to be by his former employees and much of the media and public.  You don’t engender the type of loyalty and support he has received without doing considerable good.  And he has built a solid and profitable business over the years.

            But I can’t see what his cousin Arthur S. Demoulas (was there no imagination with regard to naming in this family?) has done that is so bad.  He gained control of a business, made some unpopular personnel decisions, and created a marketing nightmare.  Hardly a picture-perfect example of a business plan, but ownership does have its privileges.

            At the core, this has always been a family matter.  It is an ownership battle, sort of like when a relative dies and there is a fight by the survivors over the will and the assets.  Each side has a different idea of what they are entitled to and what they deserve.

            In short, the “new” management decided to share more of their wealth with the stockholders and put less back into the financial stability of the company.  They paid extra dividends to the shareholders.  It is what the majority of the ownership team wanted.  That would seem to be their decision to make, right or wrong.

            I don’t claim to have intimate knowledge of this struggle, or any inside information on how it is structured.  But I find the role of the employees here to be nothing short of fascinating.

            They are not striking for higher wages or benefits, or really even for better working conditions.  They are fighting for the business model they have come to love, the model they believe is best for their future.  And that is admirable.

            But it’s not their company, much as they may believe it is.

            The Demoulas family has been fighting and feuding over how to run their business for several decades.  The only difference is that now Arthur T’s side lost control of the company he obviously loves.  That is sad, but there has been nothing revealed to show it is illegal or improper.

            Now the employees are threatening the viability of the company that feeds them.  They are non-union, but are virtually striking.  They have not only brought their employer to its knees, but also greatly reduced its value as an acquisition target.  Even if Arthur T buys out his relatives, the cash outlay and debt will most likely require Market Basket to be a different operation.

            Politicians have seized this opportunity to side with the workers and cash in on public sentiment.  It’s hard to blame them, and almost impossible not to sympathize with the employees. 

            However, this is a family feud.  It’s a battle between the wealthy owners of a private business.  They will ultimately decide the fate of this chain.

            I just wish they would hurry up and get it done.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and longtime local official.  He can be emailed at and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

No comments: