Wild-cat strikes, workers risking their jobs, customers and employees walking picket lines — all because they are upset over the removal of one multi-millionaire CEO. In a world full of the 99 versus the 1 percent and labor versus management, it seems almost incomprehensible that workers would stick their necks out for one Arthur T. Demoulas, the loser (for the moment) in a decades-long family feud. Indeed, there’s a whiff of scorn in some commentary: Why are the peons, well down in the corporate ranks, in this fight at all? They are deluded, perhaps, sucked in by some clever PR machine, fools placing their families and their futures on the line for some plutocrat.
The critics have it wrong, misunderstanding the nature of work. Jobs don’t have to be merely about making money — although surely that’s a necessary component. At their best, they are about a shared enterprise, a collective commitment to a mission. At their best too, they elevate and challenge us, engaging our faculties in an endeavor imbued with satisfaction and meaning. Good companies — good bosses — can create such a culture; Arthur T., by almost all accounts, was one such boss.
The Demoulases are a family tragedy, quarrelling descendants of Greek immigrants Athanasios and Efrosini Demoulas, who founded what is now the Market Basket supermarket chain. The two central characters in the saga are both, unhelpfully to casual readers, named Arthur. There is Arthur T., who up until five weeks ago presided over a rapidly growing and highly profitable chain of 71 stores with $4.6 billion in sales. His nemesis is Arthur S., who last month managed to force out Arthur T. and other key management staff, replacing them with his own hand-selected team.
Improbably, employees rebelled, demanding the board reverse its decision. The company fired a few ringleaders which only seemed to give new vigor to everyone else. A weekend walk through a Market Basket feels almost surreal. Employees are working, but at their stations are bold signs of support for Arthur T. His initials are emblazoned in large letters across an otherwise empty seafood counter. “When you believe in something,” reads a sign at the check-cashing counter, “sometimes you have to stick your neck out.”
Some of this is because of a personal connection. Arthur T. is a hands-on manager; he knows workers by name and treats them as peers. But it’s not only that. In the cutthroat world of grocery stores, Arthur T. grew a business focused on lower prices — far below those of competitors such as Shaw’s or Stop & Shop. He did so by keeping the company debt free and by compensating employees well, reducing turnover and building expertise. He also made the creation of the chain a team mission, one that engages nearly all workers. The company’s profit-sharing plan — now at risk — has for years meant that eligible employees receive 15 percent of their compensation as a bonus, put into retirement accounts. “Share the success” exhorts a March 2013 letter to employees, and one senses (and surely the picket lines prove) that this isn’t B-school gobbledy-speak. Arthur T. means it.
The employees believe that the Arthur S. side of the family will undermine this business model: Market Basket will be “sold or pillaged of its assets,” worries an employee-distributed flyer. What they fear is the destruction not of Arthur T.’s creation, but of their own.
Arthur T. seems uniquely alone in the pantheon of CEO heroes, but really, there are many others. One merely needs to look at commonly available lists of “Best Places to Work.” Companies such as Google, SAS, and the Boston Consulting Group have figured out the same thing as Market Basket: Create the right culture and you can build extraordinary things. The difference is that their boards don’t fire the managers making them such a success.
I expect someday soon Hollywood will make a movie out of this story. Business schools will use the Market Basket workers’ revolt as a case study while public relations firms will treat it as a cautionary tale. Indeed, this is a story that could be told from the pulpit, not about Arthur T. but about Market Basket’s employees and what they are teaching us: faith, commitment, and inspiration. Here’s hoping they win.
This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe on July 29, 2014.