Thursday, August 28, 2014

What Have We Learned From The Market Basket Drama?

First of all, I apologize for being lax in my personal blogging. All I can say is that life's been busy and eventful, though in good ways, but it resulted in less critical projects like this one being pushed to the side. I shall endeavor to do better, and I figured that the Market Basket incident is a great subject to tackle for my return.

What Happened With Market Basket?
For those not living in the New England area, Market Basket is a chain of 71 supermarkets located in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. Owned by the Demoulas family who emigrated to the US from Greece in 1916, the chain has grown steadily, built on a reputation for good prices, friendly professional staff, and paying their employees well.

Unfortunately, there has been a power struggle between two cousins (Arthur T and Arthur S) for control of the company. Artie T was the CEO up until June, when Artie S managed to swing a Board of Directors' vote that knocked his cousin out of the CEO seat. He and two other top-level executives were fired, and two outside candidates were brought in to fill the vacancies, and everyone now in power assumed it would be business as usual.

Boy, were they ever wrong...

This is New England. You don't mess with us nor with our traditions and institutions. You bomb our marathon, we shut down an entire town and come for you. You mess with our beloved local supermarket chain, and...well...see for yourself.

What needs to be made clear here is that this whole drama could also be called the Battle Of The Billionaire Relatives Who Can't Stand Each Other. But whereas Artie T has been characterized (and his actions have borne out that characterization) as being someone who believes in paying his employees a good living wage, treating them with respect, and providing customers with low prices, all while still turning a profit, Artie S is from the "squeeze every dollar out of a company, even if that means higher prices and lower benefits" school of business.

I couldn't find a picture of Artie S, so here's old man Potter.

Employees and customers alike responded to the change in leadership swiftly and dramatically. There were walkouts and a massive and very effective boycott that resulted in business absolutely plummeting. There's a Market Basket near where I work, and I can tell you, the parking lot was a ghost town, day in and day out. Second-hand accounts from other branches mirrored this. People would post their grocery receipts from competing supermarkets on the automatic doors of their local Market Baskets. Motorists honked their horns in support of the striking employees. Truck drivers refused to make deliveries.  There were huge rallies attended by sometimes up to 5,000 customers and employees, in a bid to bring Artie T back. And as the board showed that they weren't the bastions of reliability (not to mention bills not getting paid), grocery suppliers began to cease doing business with the chain. Even the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire got into the fray, because politicians.

The strong, sustained reaction caught a lot of people off-guard. After all, who in their right minds engages in such a long, drawn-out campaign for the sake of a supermarket chain and an ousted billionaire CEO? Maybe, just maybe, it's the kind of people who enjoy being treated decently, like human beings should be treated. But this sort of thing isn't supposed to happen. Boards of directors and CEOs are supposed to be able to implement whatever measures they want, and the people are supposed to simply take it like good little consumer sheep.

Yeah, good luck with that. Because New England!

A little over two months after the initial firing, with sales bottoming out and an enormous PR nightmare on their hands, the board finally approved the sale of the 50.5% majority shares of Market Basket to Artie T, putting him back in charge again. This also meant that everyone who was fired either during the takeover or who lost their jobs as a result of the rallies and protests would get their jobs back. At this writing, Artie T and his team are scrambling to get Market Basket up and running again, bringing back fired employees as well as getting those bare shelves restocked.

Buying Local
Personally, I've always been a fan of Market Basket. Their prices are lower than other chains, while their selection and quality is just as good as the larger, pricier stores. The employees are extremely helpful, friendly, and are expected to behave and look professional. For instance, employees aren't allowed to wear jeans when at work; they're expected to dress just a little better. It's little touches like that which made it a nice place to shop. In fact, the only knock I've ever had with Market Basket was that most of the time their background music is dreadful 70's sludge. I mean, we're talking really sucky stuff here, people.

There is also something to be said about putting my money into a chain that's locally owned and run, a good old fashioned locally-based American company, as opposed to, say, Hannafords (owned by a Belgian corporation), or WalMart (owned by the Antichrist and Satan).

So here's what we've learned from this whole adventure, boys and girls:

NEVER Go Into Business With Family Members
Other than organized religion, no other entity can be either a strong, comforting support or a means of messing you up for life, like families can. Family feuds are the worst. For instance, there was even speculation among some pundits that Artie S and his side of the family would just as soon see the entire chain collapse and die rather than sell it to his cousin ("Some men just want to watch the world burn" - The Joker). Take it from someone who worked for his dad for seven miserable years: working for/with family is the worst. I'm willing to entertain the notion that exceptions exist, but they're rare. Almost as rare as a CEO who gives a damn about the so-called little people.

Brand Loyalty Still Exists
Customers stayed away in droves because the Market Basket they knew and loved was in danger of changing for the worse, becoming just another cash-draining chain of stores. Many refused to set foot in the stores until Artie T was brought back, others just dramatically curtailed their purchases. If you build a good brand, characterized by good prices, quality goods and services, and a friendly competent staff, you will get loyalty, and that means money. And speaking of loyalty...

Treat Your Employees Like Human Beings, And They'll Follow You To Hell And Back
Okay, that's hyperbole, but the spirit is true. It's a matter of public record that Artie T pays his employees an extremely good wage, one that you can actually live on without outside assistance (hear that, WalMart?). Managers have been known to bring in over $50,000 a year, and other benefits (such as retirement) are known to be just as generous. Artie T respects and values his employees, treating them like professionals, and consequently they act that way. Well-paid employees make for happy employees, which in turn means more customers. Step 4: profit!

People Still Have Power
While I don't buy some people's rosy assessment that this incident is the big turning point in the struggle for the little guy to get an even break, it's certainly a start. Precedent has been set. People can vote with their feet, and as long as those people remain true and devoted to their convictions, and there's enough of them doing it, they can change things. The cynical golden rule may say "He who has the gold makes the rules", but what happens when that gold supply is cut off, courtesy of the people who've declared "That's enough!"? You know, the ones who supplied the gold in the first place?

So yes, it is very possible that, when faced with an intolerable condition dictated by the people with all the cash, the average Joes have more options than just sitting there and docilely going along with it, all the while muttering that nice guys finish last and that life's unfair. Sometimes you can take a stand and change things. Sometimes, the good guys can win.

There IS No "Class Warfare"
Spoiler alert: This guy's a jerk
"Class warfare" is a phrase trotted out by big business/rich people (and the politicians in their pockets) as a code for "the average person loudly objects to being unreasonably drained of cash and/or has an issue about corporations not paying their fair share of taxes, so let's paint ourselves as victims."

Sure, the Market Basket incident may be just a small sample size, but it helps to show that "average" people don't necessarily hate all rich people. Artie T is a billionaire, but he's fostered an impressive level of devotion and support from employees and customers. No one begrudges anyone from making a fortune and striking it rich. This is America, after all, and people can still come here with an idea, a lot of hard work, and a plan, and make it big.

There are other rich folk like Artie T around, to be sure. It just seems that this particular breed of rich person is so difficult to find that, when you do find it, a big fuss has to be made.

But while non-rich people don't hate rich folks, what people do resent are those wealthy individuals who, in their quest to achieve an even greater level of cash-grabbing overkill, will bleed consumers and employees dry by any means necessary. No one is denying people the right to go out and get rich, but at what point, how many millions, how many billions, do you point out to these heartless money-grubbers that their single-minded obsession to imitate Scrooge McDuck is making it impossible for the average person to earn a living or acquire goods and services for a reasonable price?

The people have spoken, the good guys have won, and, in what has to be the best case scenario, all of the damage from the unfortunate incident can and will be undone. Score one for the people!

Welcome back, Market Basket! Now, restock those awesome store-brand everything bagel tops, m'kay?