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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Market Basket’s competing philosophies a hot topic in business circles

Scott Flegal

Is there any business more interesting than a family business? The relationships between family business owners make the relationships between owners of other privately owned companies look like child’s play. Regular business owners might have long-term relationships; family business relationships, on the other hand, are lifelong. Regular business owners have predecessors and successors; family business owners have mothers, fathers and heirs. Regular business owners have experience; family business owners have scars.

Many of us in New England are witnessing the downside of family ownership as we watch the ongoing Market Basket saga. Market Basket, one of the nation’s largest and most successful privately owned retailers, is being brought to its knees by two competing forces. Internally, the family is feuding. Externally, the employees and customers have banded together in a show of unity and support for one ownership faction that is rare – if not unprecedented. ...

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Is there any business more interesting than a family business? The relationships between family business owners make the relationships between owners of other privately owned companies look like child’s play. Regular business owners might have long-term relationships; family business relationships, on the other hand, are lifelong. Regular business owners have predecessors and successors; family business owners have mothers, fathers and heirs. Regular business owners have experience; family business owners have scars.

Many of us in New England are witnessing the downside of family ownership as we watch the ongoing Market Basket saga. Market Basket, one of the nation’s largest and most successful privately owned retailers, is being brought to its knees by two competing forces. Internally, the family is feuding. Externally, the employees and customers have banded together in a show of unity and support for one ownership faction that is rare – if not unprecedented.

The feuding piece is fairly easy to comprehend. Family businesses, especially ones owned by second- and third-generation owners, are inherently combustible. What is happening among the family factions at Market Basket is not uncommon. It happens all the time, albeit perhaps not on such a grandiose scale. In the family business world, what is happening at Market Basket is, in many ways, the same old fight.

For years, Arthur T. Demoulas had maintained operational control of the company because of one family member who had consistently supported him – despite the fact that he or she was related to the Arthur S. Demoulas group. For some reason, this person recently switched sides and voted to support the Arthur S. group. That was all it took to swing the balance of power at the board level in favor of Arthur S. Just like that, Arthur T. was converted to a minority voter, without management control. It may have been abrupt, but it was not shocking. In business, these things happen all the time.

What happened next, though, was shocking. It turned out that Arthur T. was so beloved by Market Basket employees that they walked off the job in protest of his ousting. Customers largely followed suit, shopping elsewhere. Was the Arthur S. group surprised by this? It might have been. Then again, the Arthur S. faction might have viewed this as a possible outcome and yet gone ahead anyway. It’s that kind of family, and that kind of feud.

While the family feud driving the Market Basket debacle is somewhat typical, the collective actions of the employees – and, to a lesser degree, customers – may be unprecedented. Almost unanimously, it seems, the employees picked their horse right out of the gate and seem committed to ride it all the way to the end of the race. They believe in Arthur T., and they believe the company should be his. But how will this race finish? It looks to me like it is going to be a very tough one for Arthur T. and the employees to win. They are a longshot.

The brave steps taken by Market Basket employees were the equivalent of a life ring for Arthur T. Their acts alone are all that have prevented him from sinking into the still waters of life as a minority owner. In that capacity, an owner can cry out, but nobody really cares. As I write this column, Arthur T. is still afloat, clinging to that life ring. His chance to regain control of the company and get it back on track is running out.

I say this for two reasons. First, the history between Arthur T. and Arthur S. demonstrates that the interests of employees and customers are not a priority for Arthur S. and company. Arthur T. believed the company’s long-term interests were best served by rewarding loyal employees and customers. Arthur S. placed a higher priority on maximizing the returns for ownership and getting cash into their hands. This, by the way, does not make the Artie S. faction evil or morally inferior. In fact, those two competing philosophies are a hot topic in business circles right now. Regardless, in all likelihood, if Arthur T. loses, the employees will lose too.

The second reason to be concerned about the outcome from the employees’ standpoint is ironic, but nonetheless compelling. The sheer profitability of the Market Basket chain over the last 50 years has been astounding. It has been one of America’s most profitable privately owned retail chains. The money its owners have made during that time is hard for most of us to even comprehend. They have become very, very rich. This is a problem for Arthur T., as the pockets of the owners may have been so thoroughly lined already that the financial pressure brought about by the employee walk-off causes Arthur S. and his group no meaningful financial pain. If that is the case, then Arthur T. simply has no leverage in these negotiations.

What about the Market Basket brand, you say? Family members must care about their legacy, don’t they? The truth is that probably some do. But for many of them, watching Arthur T. go down may be its own reward, powerful enough for them to throw the Market Basket baby out with the bathwater. Under these circumstances, Arthur T. will be hard-pressed to make any offer that is rich enough to get the Arthur S. faction to let him emerge as the hero.

I hope I am wrong. I hope that Artie T. wins the race, and I hope the employees and the Market Basket brand win this race. If they lose it, it is neither a reflection of their courage nor the validity of their actions. They have been brave, if perhaps somewhat naive. They deserve a better outcome then they are likely to get.

Scott Flegal is a business lawyer and mediator. Visit him at www.flegal.com or www.negotiationworks.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hscottflegal and read his blog at scottflegal.com.