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Loyal employees: The Market Basket case

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I recall reading a play about feuding families set in Verona…oh yes, Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. That’s what the Market Basket controversy reminds me of: feuding families and loyal fans or employees.

Market Basket is a chain of 71 supermarket stores in New England and 25,000 employees. The news abound about its management crisis: Arthur T. Demoulas (a.k.a. ATD) was fired as the chain’s CEO by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas who controls the board, because of a family feud that goes back almost 30 years. But what has been more surprising is that a lot of the employees either quit or have been protesting the lay-offs, demanding that Arthur T. be reinstated.

How did ATD become popular and inspire such a fervent following by his employees? The beginnings of the grocery store chain might have had something to do with his success. It started as a mom-and-pop market, and when the founders (ATD’s grandfather) sold it to two of their children, the brothers modernized it and made it a popular chain. They also implemented customer loyalty programs and created a very tight-knit corporate culture. But then, one of the brothers died; his heirs sued their uncle for trying to take over the family company and the feud began.

That’s where one of the brother’s sons, the ex-CEO ATD, comes in. More than offering great benefits like profit-sharing and keeping employees around for 20 or 40 years, many employees have come forth and said that ATD really cared about them, no matter their position within the company.

According to an article in The New York Times, ATD’s generosity and compassion extends to attending important events in his employee’s lives. “He’s been to my kids’ weddings, my mother’s funeral, his sisters came to my mother’s funeral, to my brother-in-law’s funeral,” said Michael King, the company’s controller.

Meanwhile, Arthur S.’s moves have been interpreted by some of Market Basket’s employees as trying to get more money out of the business and into the shareholder’s pockets; money that might be relinquished at their expense. Changes in management always bring about fears of lay-offs, changes to the pay structure and possible cutting back on benefits.

It seems like ATD’s approach to keeping employees happy — having communication transparency as to where the company is headed and empowering them to make Market Basket their own — had paid off: It helped build the successful chain and loyalty within his persona. This, in turn, resulted in passionate employees that also translated into loyal customers. But, it has also served to hurt the very same company he helped build by dividing it into two factions.

We can all relate to this tale of feuding factions and leaders, but what can we learn from this? For me, it boils down to taking care of people, listening, helping them come up in the world and genuinely building a community. And while you might be an independent financial advisor or have your own insurance practice, you still depend on your team to take care of the daily things that make your day run as smooth as possible; they are the essential oil that helps the cogs not overheat.

Will ATD be reinstated as CEO? Will the workforce go back to being happy and productive? Will the new management fire the protesters for not going back to work? Will the new Co-CEO’s abolish benefits that helped shape the current company structure, just so they can make more money? Or will they come to a happy medium where everyone wins?

I’ve always believed that we are all in the same boat and we all have oars: When we have a clear-defined direction that we can row towards, we’ll get there faster, but we need each other to move the boat!

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