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managing books

We Are Market Basket

Daniel Korschun and Grant Welker

(Amacom, 238 pages, $34.50)

In some ways, the most fascinating aspect of the Market Basket story remains untold, even after academic Daniel Korschun and journalist Grant Welker combined to write a book about the stunning show of support by employees and shoppers for the grocer's fired chief executive officer, Arthur T. Demoulas, that saw him restored to the helm.

He had been ousted by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, whose side of the family owned 50.5 per cent of the company and seemed determined to improve their returns by cutting spending on employee bonuses and profit-sharing and perhaps even selling the New England regional supermarket chain. They installed two co-CEOs, who had the right to run the company in the interests of the owners. That's the way capitalism operates.

Only it didn't this time. When their beloved Arthur T. was let go in 2014, some managers and staff walked out immediately, others were fired, and many of the employees began a revolt, even if technically still on the job. The warehouse staff, on which crucial deliveries depended, walked out, and the stores were soon empty of stock. Not only that, suppliers who were loyal to Arthur T. and his team stopped providing their wares, even if, in some cases, that drastically threatened their livelihood. Customers started going elsewhere even before the supplies dwindled – although they did return to the stores to tape their cash receipts from other supermarkets on Market Basket's windows.

In searching for the right word to describe the turmoil, the authors of We Are Market Basket decided it wasn't a strike (since most employees were still reporting for work) or a boycott (since most boycotts are meant to show displeasure for the company and this was actually a display of support for a cherished operation). "This was an act of civil disobedience, not against the government, but in order to save a beloved company. It was a sort of 'corporate disobedience,'" they write.

The board and the new co-CEOs – both able, proven leaders – were giving orders but they weren't leading to the desired effect. A flourishing company became a shell, quickly.

It's intriguing to wonder what it felt like to be leading the company at that time, giving commands that proved futile. What was the mood at the executive offices? After the revolt was over, for instance, unpaid bills were found strewn about. But since the Arthur S. supporters didn't speak to the authors, their story remains untold.

The book, however, does ably chronicle what led to the revolt, as well as the fight to return Arthur T. to power. Two anecdotes, years apart, perhaps best explain the depth of loyalty and widespread show of support.

One is when Telemachus Demoulas, Arthur T.'s father, was CEO of the company his parents founded, and an employee asked for a few days off to care for a daughter scheduled for surgery at an out-of-town hospital. The boss told him to take as much time as he needed, whipped out a chequebook, gave him some money, and added, "You need any more, let me know."

Years later, the book tells of Arthur T., now in the CEO office, calling an employee whose daughter was hospitalized after a brain injury. After learning how serious it was, he wanted to know whether the hospital was able to handle the situation, asking: "Do we have to move her?"

A long-time friend of the family, William Poulios, told the authors that the Greek upbringing of the Demoulas clan means: "If you're family, they are going to take care of you. If you're down, they are going to help you. They're gonna feed you at the holidays. If you work for them, they are going to invite you to their home. It's the old way of doing things. They brought the old customs back here. It's love and respect first."

Companies talk of teams and family. But at Market Basket, it was more than that. The supermarket chain took a different route, offering low prices for its many low-income customers – but without sacrificing food quality and without constantly trimming staff and service. Everyone was family, treated as special.

At the same time, this was a privately owned, family operated supermarket, and the the family was at war. When Telemachus's brother and partner in the business died of a heart attack in 1971, he felt he looked after that brother's family, giving them ample money to spend. But they felt he swindled them out of ownership rights, and in an epic court battle won, gaining control of the empire.

A frustrated Arthur T. reportedly took a swing at cousin Arthur S. during the court proceedings. Years later, their enmity led to the public fight for control of Market Basket. Arthur T., the guy with the lesser ownership stake, handily won in the court of public opinion. Arthur S. had to sell to his cousin because the value of his stock was plummeting.

It's an unusual story, well told with drama and analytical insight.

Web tail Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter


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