As I blogged during the summer of 2014, the No. 1 topic of discussion across much of New England concerned the dramatic battle for control of the Market Basket supermarket chain. In an unprecedented reaction to moves by one-half of the family owning the company to sell the popular stores to more expensive rivals, its management, devoted workers, trusted suppliers, and loyal shoppers united to bring the enterprise itself to a halt. A grinding halt. And it worked.
After months of earlier rebuffs and daily headlines, the part of the family actually running the stores announced an agreement to buy the entire operation from its hostile relations.
It was a complicated story, with some long-festering feuds in the not-so-recent background. The kind of story that’s bound to show up as movie adaptations. Maybe even as a television mini-series. Maybe not Dallas in Boston, but as rich in its material.
We’ve been waiting for the book-length analyses, and the first one is finally making the rounds: We Are Market Basket (the title comes from a slogan at the time) has been published by an American Management Association affiliate.
Authors are frequently advised to “know their audience,” with the implication of tailoring their work to assumed demands. In this case, the book can be seen aiming at two audiences: New Englanders who remember the revolt and likely participated in some part of it, and then business majors and managers around the world. It’s both a strength and weakness for the volume.
Reading the text, it’s easy to see which part was written by which coauthor: Lowell Sun newspaper reporter Grant Walker drafted the day-by-day narrative, while associate business professor Daniel Korschun provided the chapters on business management. It’s all good stuff, though a bit repetitive, as one might expect from daily news reports that have to recap earlier developments. And I started wishing Walker had more sources to draw on. Still, they underscore the point of their book.
As the subtitle says, The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement That Saved a Beloved Business, this was a remarkable event. Korschum uses it as a platform to argue for an awareness of stakeholders in a company – not just stockholders. It’s a theme Bernie Sanders has been pressing in his presidential campaign, and he’s not alone it saluting its importance. Workers, suppliers, and entire communities have investments of one sort or another in the companies that operate in our presence. For Market Basket, with prices typically 16 percent lower than its major competition, customers have a definite reason for supporting the stores, which, as it turns out, are remarkably profitable, despite or (as Korschum argues and others of us believe) because of their culture of contrarian instincts.
You can read the book for the reasons why. The list of down-to-earth practices throughout the operation, where the lowest level workers are encouraged to find ways to improve the business, is worth the read alone. You won’t walk through any store quite the same afterward.
My interest in the topic goes back decades before this, as I saw the operations of a smaller but similar grocery operation run by my then-girlfriend’s father. His own father had started out with a produce cart that went door to door. Besides, my own inclination has been for smaller, typically family, operations rather than monolithic corporations – as I demonstrate in my novel Hometown News and pursued for most of my employment as a journalist.
As I was perusing We Are Market Basket, I kept thinking of business books like Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence series. They’re fun to read and make their point, though there just might be more to the story. In this case, I definitely feel there is.
Yes, when we come to the stakeholders argument, we can look to John Henry Patterson’s benevolent leadership at the National Cash Register Co. in Dayton, Ohio, or the glory years of the cereal makers in Battle Creek, Michigan, or Aaron Feuerstein’s moves in the aftermath of the Polar Fleece fabrics’ devastating factory fire in Malden, Massachusetts. Essentially, these provide similar models of enlightened leadership along the stakeholders’ ideal. But this book also leaves me wondering about the next generation after Arthur T. Demoulas’ leadership – he is, after all, pictured riding a white horse. So there’s a need for a management text on maintaining leadership a generation or two down the pike, which this book glides over as one of simply maintaining the historic company culture. There’s a lot of repetition on Market Basket’s culture in these pages, perhaps to drive the point home or, as I suspect, perhaps because of slack editing. But will that culture be enough?
On another front, there’s a volume yet to appear that puts the Market Basket experience in perspective with other leader-defined companies. Yes, we love our heroes, but they’re hardly the stuff of corporate America these days. More often, they’re anonymous and invisible. What kind of executive would be needed to fill Arther T.’s shoes?
And there’s another round of writings that might relate Market Basket to other family-owned companies and their survival or failure in moving from one generation to another. Family ownership issues have become a distinct subset of a business school curriculum. You don’t get fired from being a brother or a sister or cousin or grandkid — it’s a lifetime position.
We Are Market Basket skims over the earlier family conflicts that erupted into ugly, protracted, and costly court battles only years before the events at the heart of this book. To understand the bitterness of the most recent round, I’d love to see a volume – or at least one more open to both sides – more detailed than what this one presents. Not that the other side made itself in any way sympathetic in the 2014 accounts. Even so, the events were not quite as black-or-white as they seem to appear. An astute reader senses the authors’ desire not to antagonize their sources, meaning the book’s told basically from one side.
Another fascinating dimension also appears in corporate ownership that’s not quite split evenly 50/50. Television viewers may remember an episode of Ed Asner’s Lou Grant series where the newspaper was threatened by such a division – not that much different from the Seattle Times, actually, where one percent held the sway vote.
When it comes to Market Basket, we have one crucial family voter who switched. Why? Everyone wants to know.
So I’m still hoping for a more definitive volume than this entry. Maybe by the crack team from the Boston Globe, which could throw far more reporters at the story than the suburban Lowell Sun could – reporter/author Welker at least had the advantage of having the Demoulas family grocery stores originating in Lowell and putting their headquarters one town over, in Tewksbury, but he was a Lone Ranger in the face of a large reporting and editing staff in Boston.
Another of the case studies waiting to happen would look at Market Basket since the uprising. Can it sustain the large debt load and still maintain its generous employee bonuses and profit-sharing, along with its low prices? A year-after report by the Globe found that the company is indeed prospering in its rebirth. But long-term questions remain.
Will the fuller story ever come out?
For me, more and more, I’m looking for another current example, somewhat the way scientists want an experiment that can be replicated — another stakeholder over stockholder victory.
In the meantime, we’re still shopping – almost religiously – at Market Basket.