In 1971, Walt Kelly, an American cartoonist best known for his “Pogo” comic strip was made famous for a phrase that his lead character once uttered – “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I was reminded of the iconic phrase this past week, when another chapter was written in the seemingly never-ending business soap opera also known as Market Basket.
About a century ago, Arthur Demoulas opened a grocery store in Lowell, Massachusetts that would grow into one of the largest privately held family owned companies in the country. For the past few years, his grandsons Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthus S. Demoulas (cousins) have fought for control of the company. In June, Arthur T. was forced to step down. The story is too long and agonizing to chronicle here. (For a summary, read The saga of Demoulas’ Market Basket, which was written by Evan Horowitz for the Boston Globe on July 15.)
However, the latest chapter in the story is truly remarkable. Hundreds of middle-managers at the company have demanded that Arthur T. be returned to power. The new “co-CEOs” hired by Arthur S. have threatened all of them with the loss of their jobs. Other employees are encouraging customers to boycott their own company and empty shelves occupy many aisles in many of the company’s 71 stores.
The next chapter is yet to be told, but I surmise that one of two scenarios will unfold. One is that the board will relent and put Arthur T. back in power (which seems unlikely), and the second is that many company employees will either be fired or quit. And for those that remain, the company they knew will never be the same.
I sometimes shop at a Market Basket near our office. What struck me was that each employee wears a name tag which includes their name and the length of time they have been employed by the company. I noticed that many employees were there for several years. For these workers their name tags were their “badges of honor.”
Like many business owners, I am proud to honor those who choose to spend their professional careers working with us. Keeping productive employees for many years is a critical component for success in every business. Based on what I saw while shopping at Market Basket, that atmosphere prevailed there as well.
What happens next for the Demoulas family is anyone’s guess, but this much is likely – employee retention will decrease, perhaps significantly. The cost to recruit, hire and train new employees is considerable. And now with an improving economy and a sinking unemployment rate in Massachusetts, the road to recovery for the Demoulas family may have more than a few bumps in it.
It was reported a few years ago that Arthur S. Demoulas had amassed a personal fortune that was well in excess of one billion dollars. We can only presume that Arthur T. has had similar success. Indeed, I am sure that all family members are exceedingly wealthy. Shareholders of most companies see their competition as their enemies. The Demoulas family sees their enemies when they go to a Board Meeting and see each other. Maybe it is time for them to take some advice from Pogo.
Walt Kelly’s Pogo (April 22, 1971)
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