As Arthur T. Demoulas made a triumphant return Thursday to lead the Market Basket supermarket chain, his employees summed up the fierce loyalty that led to a remarkable workers’ revolt that nearly crippled the New England chain but eventually put him back on top.
“We did it for you!” one employee yelled back at Demoulas as he addressed a crowd of supporters outside the company’s headquarters. “We love you!” shouted another.
It was a moment few thought would happen six weeks ago, when employees walked off their jobs after Demoulas was fired. Not only did the workers stick together, but customers soon followed by boycotting the stores in solidarity.
Late Wednesday, after weeks of pressure, the company announced that an agreement had been reached for Demoulas to pay $1.5 billion for the 50.5 percent of the company owned by his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, and other family members.
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The company’s two current CEOs, Felicia Thornton and Jim Gooch, a former CFO and CEO at Fort Worth-based RadioShack, will remain in place until the deal is closed, within the “next several months.” Gooch was dismissed by RadioShack’s board in September 2012.
The crisis had even prompted the intervention of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick and New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan, both Democrats.
“We are delighted that the parties have reached agreement on terms of sale and resolution of operating authority, so that employees can return to work and customers will once again be able to rely on these stores to meet their needs,” the governors said in a joint statement.
Workers and customers celebrated Thursday at a rally outside the chain’s Tewksbury headquarters, where Arthur T. Demoulas, speaking from the back of a truck, told them, “I am in awe of what you have all accomplished.”
Demoulas, 59, was fired in June by a board controlled by Arthur S. Demoulas. To protest, hundreds of warehouse workers and drivers refused to deliver fresh produce to the chain’s 71 stores, leaving shelves depleted.
Customers soon began shopping elsewhere, some because they could not find fresh food at Market Basket, but others stayed away in a concerted show of support for the workers and Arthur T. Demoulas. The usually crowded stores turned into ghost towns, with only a trickle of customers.
Employees said it was their allegiance to Demoulas that kept them united. Demoulas is beloved by the workers not only for offering generous benefits — including a profit-sharing plan — but also for stopping to talk to workers, remembering birthdays and attending funerals of employees’ relatives.
“He’ll walk into a warehouse and will stop and talk to everyone because he’s genuinely concerned about them,” said Joe Schmidt, a store operations supervisor. “He cares about families, he asks about your career goals, he will walk up to part-timers and ask them about themselves. To him, that cashier and that bagger are just important as the supervisors and the store management team.”
Business analysts said the devotion shown by employees to Demoulas is highly unusual in the corporate world.
“Most times, CEOs and the company’s business model don’t always align with the employees’ best interests,” said Paul Pustorino, an accounting professor at Suffolk University’s Sawyer Business School.
“What this proves is when a CEO can align the best interests of the company with the best interests of the employees, that generates strong employee loyalty and customer loyalty.”