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Big smiles as Market Basket customers and workers return

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 28. 2014 9:32AM
Manchester Market Basket worker Jim Blais cleans a window with a poster of Arthur T. displayed Thursday morning. (Michael Cousineau/Union Leader)

MANCHESTER — Market Basket workers and customers wore mile-wide smiles Thursday after the company resolved a family ownership feud and paved the way for weekend produce and meat deliveries to restock shelves.

The Tilton store expects to receive even sooner deliveries — bananas and fresh seafood from outside vendors today — with more produce expected this weekend.

"The warehouse is going to be working 24/7 to get us our stuff," Tilton Store Director Mike LeClair said.

Stores won't be fully stocked until next week, according to several store managers.

The return of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas meant idled part-time workers could immediately return to work.

"It felt like Christmas — Christmas for adults," Manchester dairy manager Steve Gibson said.

Gibson was among 40 workers, customers and vendors gathered in the cafe area of the Manchester store watching TV as Arthur T. Demoulas thanked workers for helping him win back control of the company.

"Words cannot express how much I appreciate each and every one of you," Demoulas told workers in Tewksbury, Mass. "You are simply the best."

John Carroll, a mass communication professor at Boston University who said last month that Market Basket would be a case study in business schools for decades to come, said Thursday that Market Basket might never return to the way it was.

"The Arthur T. who's coming back doesn't have the latitude, financially, that the old Arthur T. had," Carroll said. "He's going to have a debt service that he's going to have to deal with for a long time to come ... He doesn't have $1.5 billion sitting in a sock drawer somewhere. There's not going to be as much for bonuses, there's not going to be as much of a cushion to keep reducing prices."

Carroll said the 71-store grocery chain's challenges could include lost customers and disrupted relations with vendors.

Shopping at the Shaw's in Derry Thursday, Linda Moriarty said she has been going to Shaw's and Hannaford since the saga began. Moriarty said she has also been shopping at a local farmer's market and a meat market.

"I think I'm just going to stick with getting half at Demoulas," she said, adding, "I think the produce is better at Shaw's and Hannaford, so I've been stopping there, too. I find that their meats are fresher."

Carroll expressed doubt about stores returning to normal inventories by next week.

"Just the delivery itself — this isn't Logan Airport. They don't have an unlimited number of unloading docks," he said. "All of this stuff presents obstacles that are extremely real, and extremely difficult."

Market Basket, which rivals Wal-Mart as the state's top private employer, has about 9,000 workers in New Hampshire, with nearly 8,000 part-time, according to the state.

In early August, company executives ordered store directors to cut payroll to better match withering sales receipts. More than 1,500 applied for unemployed benefits, according to Richard Lavers, deputy commissioner for New Hampshire Employment Security

Late Wednesday, Market Basket and its shareholders announced that Market Basket shareholders had entered into a binding agreement for Arthur T.'s side of the family to buy the company. He also returned immediately with day-to-day operational authority. The co-CEOs are to remain with the company until the deal closed in several months.

Reports pegged the deal's pricetag at $1.5 billion or more.

The highly-publicized family feud drew in the governors of New Hampshire and Massachusetts, who met with both Demoulas cousins.

"We were trying to see if we could hear common ground, which we did, and try to point out where the common ground was," said Hassan, who called her husband, Tom, "a devoted Market Basket customer" in Stratham.

Hassan said she participated on a final conference call last Monday with Patrick and representatives from both sides. On that call, "my sense was that the parties had made a lot of progress, but were kind of frustrated they didn't have a deal yet."

Patrick told reporters Thursday "there was a point at which it seemed like it wasn't going to happen."

But Hassan said she never felt that way. "I thought there was a lot of common ground and every time we got briefed by the parties, it seems like it was closer," she said.

Keith O. Cowan, chairman of the board of Demoulas Super Markets, Inc., which operates the Market Basket chain, thanked the governors for their efforts.

"Governor Patrick and Governor Hassan worked tirelessly and creatively to help shareholders find solutions that brought them together to reach agreement," Cowan said in a statement. "The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New Hampshire should understand that the governors' commitment and engagement made a significant difference."

Neil Niman, chair of the economics department at the University of New Hampshire, said the governors realize the ripple effect of the supermarket chain in their state economies.

"I think it was both appropriate and welcomed that they tried to intervene and do what they could to bring resolution to the standoff between the two sides," Niman said. "For some of the workers and customers who began to lose all hope, it's nice to have a cheerleader in the room."

On Thursday, Bedford store workers replaced signs supporting Arthur T. with ones offering words of gratitude for customers.

"Thank you for your loyalty and support. We are back because of you!" read one sign.

"It's like an elephant's off my shoulder," Bedford Assistant Store Director Chris Bielecki said.

Union Leader Correspondents Mike Lawrence and Hunter McGee contributed to this report.

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