Most northern New Englanders already know the short version of the Market Basket saga from last summer: Following more than a decade of irreconcilable litigation, rival Demoulas cousins, Arthur T. and Arthur S., finally went head-to-head in an exhilarating game of corporate chicken. After the universally maligned Artie S. forced the beloved Artie T. out of the company, customers and store associates alike commenced a mass walkout and rally that made national headlines. Best of all, in the end, the win went to the good guys, from employees to the famously benevolent Artie T., who returned to the family chain last August to lead his adoring flock.
As the Demoulas wrestling match warranted thorough documentation, said uprising is now the subject of a new book, We Are Market Basket: The Story of the Unlikely Grassroots Movement that Saved a Beloved Business. Call it the long version. We spoke with one of the authors, Lowell Sun reporter Grant Welker, last Monday (and emailed with his co-author, Drexel University marketing professor Daniel Korschun, shortly after). The call was minutes after Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced that he would not sign contracts necessary to proceed with a bid for the Summer Games, and the timing seemed ideal; while the Market Basket optics were less than Olympic, and popped off in a supermarket parking lot, in toasting the upending of Boston 2024, it was easy to recall the people’s win of 2014.
What’s the first time you remember covering Market Basket?
GW: When Arthur T. came in to meet us for an editorial board meeting [in 2014]. Being from the South Shore, I knew of Market Basket, but it’s more of a Merrimack Valley and New Hampshire thing. I quickly learned about it though. We knew right away that it was going to be a big story when he came in to see us; for him to be coming in to talk to the newspaper was unheard of. We knew right away that this was unusual, and it’s because he knew that his job, and the company itself was really at risk. It was a memorable way to get thrown into it.
It’s not easy to be objective when you had thousands of people on one side behind Artie T., and just Artie S. and his immediate family members on the other. How hard was it to paint this picture, journalistically speaking?
GW: It was difficult because you want to be able to tell both sides of the story as fairly and objective as you can. But really the Arthur S. side, and the directors associated with shareholders on that side of the family, they didn’t respond to our requests for comment, and even the public statements they made were very few, and they didn’t give a clear explanation for what they did in firing Arthur T. and some of the subsequent actions. We did mention that they wanted higher profit margins, but the only way that we even found out those reasons was in court filings. They never really made much of an attempt to win over the public and explain why they made that decision.
For Daniel, being an academic, was there anything outside of the obvious that made this project warrant a look beyond the computer screen, and into the actual fight on the ground?
DK: I became interested in the story in 2013, when the first big threat to Arthur T. materialized. It was the most dramatic evidence I had ever seen that responsible leadership can help build strong companies. That is the crux of my research, so I was drawn to the story immediately. But it wasn’t until I visited one of the rallies in 2014 that I came to realize that something very important was going on. I knew then that someone needed to tell people around the world about it. Grant and I thought that it could be especially effective if we joined forces.
How did this wind up turning into a book?
GW: I realized it was a huge story just over a year ago, once those eight top managers were fired and started a walkout. Then the customers started boycotting, and it went from a story that affected a few thousand people, to, once they had the walkout, they’re saying there are two-million customers, so now all of them are affected, and really if you shop anywhere in Market Basket territory, you were affected by it too, because now your supermarket was packed all summer. That affected anyone who bought groceries in the entire region. And then the national media really seized on the storyline of the middle class, and the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. And that was all sort of accurate obviously.
What was it like to be on the beat and writing the book at the same time?
GW: It sort of worked out that by the time I started working on the book, the day to day stuff was almost over. Toward the end of the rally, we started talking about possibly doing the book. Daniel and I [first] connected two years ago, when the saga initially started. He wanted to incorporate the story into one of his business classes, and was looking for some context. So we were in touch a little bit. As reporters do, you have to reach out to business experts who know what they’re talking about, and I had a core group of guys who I would talk to at certain points, and he was one of them. When things picked up again last summer, he has family in Andover and around the area, and so he was around to just kind of check it out first-hand. We connected at a rally in Tewksbury.
The book is on a business imprint, but is a remarkably friendly read. How conscious of wanting to make this a book for general audiences were you while you were going through the writing process?
DK: One of the goals for the book was to create a document of the events for the millions of people who participated. We always wanted the book to be accessible to anyone with an interest. I envision people reading the book, perhaps while on the beach at the Cape, but it is also important to me that the reader finish the book thinking a little differently about business than they did beforehand.
I know there’s no short answer to this, but why don’t more large corporations follow at least some of the models that Market Basket puts forward? Do all these pieces have to be in place at the same time for the magic to happen?
DK: You’re right, there is no short answer, and time will tell how much others will take from this story. I agree that the pieces have to work together. Market Basket is so successful because it fosters strong relationships between its associates and others. It’s those personal relationships that motivate everyone so much. Many other companies have become so focused on optimizing processes, and on using technology to communicate with customers and suppliers that they lose sight of the importance of those personal relationships. One of the admirable qualities of managers at Market Basket is that they rarely lose sight of the end goal of providing a low-cost yet personal experience. They track costs very closely, but don’t let those costs become an end in itself.
GW: There’s such a mixture of all these different factors that made the Market Basket victory possible for the workers and shoppers. Not too many companies are going to have that kind of cult following; it’s hard to imagine it happening with Stop & Shop or Shaw’s. Could you imagine auto workers at Chevrolet walking out and having 90 percent of Chevy drivers going to Ford? Of course not, they’re not going to.
It seems that Market Basket is looking out for the customer and workers in ways that many people hadn’t even realized. Now that the story is out, and we all know what a blessing it is to have their stores in our region, how much do you think that will help the company moving forward?
DK: The story has strengthened the loyalty of many, and has also brought in a lot of people who were less familiar with the company. That aspect will probably remain for some time to come. However the long term health of the company will depend on a lot of hard work. This is a very competitive business. There are more chains closing stores than chains opening them. Executives we speak with tell us that they are determined to stay focused on the future, even as they look back in wonder now and then at what they pulled off.
Are there any sweeping takeaways here?
GW: You ask customers about their role [in the win], and all they do is thank the employees and Artie T. Talk to the employees, and all they do is thank the customers. Talk to the people in management, and they thank the customers and the employees in the stores. I think everyone had their own little role to play to different degrees. When you talk to them all a year later, everyone is proud to have played even a small role, but they all deflect the credit onto other people. It’s the most typical Market Basket thing, but it’s true.
Grant and Daniel read from We Are Market Basket at Porter Square Bookstore on Monday, August 17 at 7pm, and on Monday, September 14 at the Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy.