Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

Rallying for a Millionaire Boss

Other than for Hillary Clinton. mobs of average wage-earning people don’t typically rally in support of millionaires, let alone their millionaire bosses.

1004demoulas06*304xx1721-1147-0-0That’s what makes the continuing protest so intriguing by employees and customers who are rooting for the overdog at Market Basket grocery stores in the Northeast.

It all centers on the ouster of Arthur T. Demoulas as CEO of the 71-store chain that employs 25,000 people and offers customers low prices on groceries. Demoulas was deposed at a board Market Basket board meeting earlier this summer that was engineered by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas. Their Greek immigrant grandparents opened their first grocery store in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1919.

The pro-Arthur T. protests, which have included shipping disruptions at the chain’s central warehouses and employees urging customers to stay away, is costing Market Basket as much as $10 million a day. The rallies have been so fervent and the issues involved so visceral, the family feud has grabbed national attention.

The board dismissed Arthur T. for failing to maximize profits, or as one wag put it,running the company “with the expected ruthless corporate efficiency.”  Exhibit A for disenchanted Market Basket board members is the profit-sharing plan Arthur T. has installed and vigorously defended. Arthur T. irked some in 2008 when he redeemed a $46 million loss to the profit-sharing fund caused by slumping economic conditions and declining sales.

Now you get an inkling of why employees like Arthur T. One district manager, who also has been fired for his defense of Arthur T., compared his former boss to George Bailey in the classic movie It’s a Wonderful Life, “He cares more about people than he does about money.”

Now you can understand why fellow millionaires are miffed at Arthur T. In their parlance, Arthur T. is “bad for business.”

henry_ford_by_memuk73-d5li2kfHow soon we forget Henry Ford. The man credited with popularizing the assembly line to hold down costs saw it less as a business efficiency than a branding strategy. Ford’s genius was marrying technology of his time to the concept of spreading the wealth. The cheaper he could make cars, the more people – including his assembly line workers – could afford to buy them. It wasn’t about making cheap cars; it was about creating an expanding market.

Ironically, there were better cars on the market when Ford came out with his Model T. But people bought his car and made Ford a fortune because of what he stood for. By 1918, only 10 years after introducing his first car, half of all the cars on the road in America were Model Ts. And they all were black. Not a bad business plan for someone interested in people as much as cars.

The Ford Motor Company continues today under family leadership. Tellingly, it was the only member of the Big Three Detroit automakers that didn’t seek or need a federal government bailout as a result of the Great Recession.

Instead of reviling Arthur T., corporate executives should consider following his example. Treating his employees fairly builds fierce loyalty and with 25,000 employees, that’s loyalty that turns into receipts at the grocery store checkout line.

Being concerned for the financial well-being employees – and taking an interest in them personally (Arthur T. actually knows the name of employees and their family members) – sets the standard for how to treat customers, especially families on slim budgets who need to squeeze value out of every penny.

Stunned by the outcry, the board has put Market Basket up for sale. Not surprisingly, Arthur T. is one of the bidders. If board members were smart, they would sell to Arthur T. For anyone else, Market Basket would just be a bunch of food stores. For Arthur T., it’s family and it’s personal.


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