These days, corporate executives are routinely reviled by the great mass of people. We read story after story in newspapers and magazines, see the same on television, about how executives are overpaid, underworked, incompetent and bleeding America dry -- ready at the first sign of trouble to float away on their "golden parachutes."
What a contrast the Market Basket story provides. A chief executive, Arthur T. Demoulas, was fired along with two of his top lieutenants by the corporate board of directors on June 23. This happens every day in American business. The board is displeased; the CEO must go.
But what happened at Market Basket does not happen every day. In fact, what happened may be unique.
Warehouse workers walked out. Store employees -- known within the company as "associates" -- organized protests. Customers responded to calls for a boycott. Adopting a stuffed giraffe as their symbol, the associates all "stuck their necks out for Arthur T."
And it worked.
Individual store sales plummeted, in some cases down 98 percent over the previous year. The new co-CEOs, Felicia Thornton and James Gooch, brought in by the board of directors to "fix" things, railed and threatened. They sacked top managers. They set deadlines and made demands. But still, the warehouse workers and associates did not back down. And the customers stayed away in droves.
The board of directors could not have executed a better plan for the destruction of a highly successful business if that had been their intention from the outset. The long-standing family feud between cousins Arthur S. Demoulas and Arthur T. Demoulas was bringing the company to its knees. Finally, the pressure of losing millions of dollars a day brought both sides to the negotiating table. After a number of fits and starts and under pressure to reach a deal from two governors, an agreement was reached late Wednesday to sell the 50.5 percent of shares held by the Arthur S. side of the family to Arthur T. for $1.5 billion.
After cheers and celebrations late Wednesday and early Thursday, it was time to get back to work. With Arthur T. back at the helm and the associates out of the parking lots and back in the stores, there were vendors to contact, deliveries to receive and shelves to stock.
So how did a CEO build such loyalty among a company's workers that when he was fired they said, "No way!" rather than, "Good riddance!"? Quite simply, he treated them honestly, generously and fairly. To the high school kids looking to earn a buck or two, he offered flexible hours and scholarships to help pay for college. To those looking to make a career of the grocery business, he offered decent pay, benefits, profit-sharing and the opportunity to advance based on performance. This philosophy was adopted throughout the company, with local managers treating their employees honestly and fairly.
It is a model based on respect for fundamental human dignity. It is a mindset that places employees on the "assets" side of the balance sheet, rather than under "liabilities."
So when Arthur T. was ousted, it became apparent to Market Basket workers that they soon might no longer be seen as "associates" but rather as very expendable cogs in the meat grinder of the grocery business. They had, paraphrasing the biblical Daniel, been weighed on the deli scale and found wanting.
So they stood up for themselves and stood strong. They made their demand: "Bring back ATD." They stuck their necks out for Arthur T. -- and won.
Quite a story for the beginning of Labor Day weekend.