SAGAMORE – Ousted Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas was the kind of boss who instead of focusing on how many cars were in the parking lot or bottom line sales numbers, focused on the well-being of his staff.
Sagamore Market Basket assistant store director Mike Harnden of Middleborough said that is why the company’s staff is united in supporting him against the new management of the grocery chain.
Across the state, Market Baskets have been the scene of protests over the last four days because of the June firing of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas after a family dispute.
The company has 25,000 employees at 71 stores in New England. The Sagamore store with about 350 employees opened two years ago.
Arthur T. Demoulas is the son of the late Mike Demoulas who, with his brother George, took over ownership of Market Basket in the 1950s.
It was Mike Demoulas, Harnden said, who instituted the low prices and focus on customer service, while also making an extra effort to be kind to employees.
When Arthur T. Demoulas took over the company in 2000, he followed that model, Harnden said. “Same image. All for the customers, all for the employees,” Harnden said.
“Low prices drives the volume and that’s what makes it an exciting work place. What CEO takes care of the customers and the employees and takes care of corporate last?” Harnden asked.
Arthur T. Demoulas would visit the Sagamore store often, Harnden, an 18-year employee with the chain, said.
When he visited, he knew all the employees names and even sent them personal letters several times a year, along with bonus checks, said Kim-Ray Gomes and Allyssa Cooke, two employees who were outside the store yesterday offering petitions to customers.
Gomes, 28, who works as head of cakes and dessert in the bakery, has worked for Market Basket for four years.
She explained why employees feel so attached to the company.
“They make you feel like a family,” she said.
She said individual employees received letters from Arthur T. Demoulas thanking them for their work and stating that the staff is the reason why the store is successful.
She said customer service is what brings business back to the store time after time. For her in the bakery department, customers frequently bring her thank you cards and letters for her efforts, she said.
As she spoke, customers drove by honking their horns in support.
Cooke, 27, has worked at Market Basket for only a few weeks as a bagger, training to be a cashier, but she is already on board with the protest.
She said the concern is that the new board of directors under Arthur S. Demoulas plans to sell the company or change the company or both.
“I love my job,” she said. “We just want Arthur T. back in.”
Harnden said that the protest outside the store Tuesday included a couple of customers joining the employees. The group was holding decorated poster boards saying, “Save Arthur” and “Save Market Basket.”
“We’re doing it the Market Basket way,” Harnden said. “The whole company is united as one. Everybody is on board. We all want him back. We all know how important his role is with this company.”
Harnden explained, “He’ll come in the store and instead of asking about the parking lot or sales, it’s ‘How’s your mum doing?’ ‘How’s your wife?’ He’s really personable. He’s one of a kind. I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it. Arthur T. is one of a kind.”
Gomes and Cooke both said they were worried about their jobs and of what was going to happen to the company.
“I’m scared, to be honest,” Gomes said. She said of people who have already been fired at the company, “280 years of experience” has already been lost.
The petitions employees are circulating ask customers to boycott the store until Arthur T. Demoulas is reinstated. Employees say that until that time, they are in a quiet protest mode.
Harnden said he is worried about the company under the new management. “They brought in two corporate America CEOs who know nothing about Market Basket. This is a promote from within company,” he said.
Harnden said the company came together after the firing. “We made a decision as a company to protest, from the warehouse to the corporate offices to the stores now. We are working, but we’re not going to do it until he comes back, full work,” Harnden said.
The new management team includes Arthur S. Demoulas, who store employees believe will not uphold the strong customer service policies and low prices that the store is known for.
At the Sagamore location, Harnden said off-duty employees are participating in the “pleasant protest” activity outside the stores in order to explain to customers what is going on. “It’s not a strike,” Harnden said.
Harnden said customers on the Cape are being supportive of the cause and signing the petition.
No truck deliveries have come to the store since last Friday, Harmden said, and so shelves, especially for perishables, are spare and, in some cases, empty.
“The warehouse stopped sending trucks. The store is taking a hit. But the customers, especially down here on the Cape where Market Basket is new, are being so nice, so loyal, so understanding, and they all have Arthur T.’s back, it seems for the last three days with this protest going on,” he said.
He said the lack of deliveries is most apparent in the produce and deli departments, as well as in seafood.
Harnden said employees are trying to send a message to management.
“We’re trying to send a message that we run this company. It’s our company. We built it. It’s ours,” he said.
As a customer exited the store yesterday, Gomes approached her to let her know what was happening at the store.
Another customer, Rose Saint Sauveur of Millford said she was upset about what was happening to the company.
“I cried. You want to find that place of comfort, instead of a place where they rack prices up. Everyone’s very helpful,” she said.
The company began as a single market opened in 1916 in Lowell by Athanasios and Efrosini Demoulas. The couple passed the store down to their sons, Mike and George Demoulas. In 1971, George Demoulas died, leaving Mike in charge. The third generation, Arthur T. Demoulas, who is Mike’s son, and Arthur S. Demoulas, George’s son, have been battling for control of the company since the 1990s.