The Academization of Market Basket Has Begun

The Market Basket struggle was put into an academic light on Thursday night at MIT.
The Market Basket struggle was put into an academic light on Thursday night at MIT. –Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Less than a month after Arthur T. Demoulas struck a deal to buy out Market Basket from rival family members, the summer’s saga got the business school treatment Thursday night.

Market Basket customers and employees made up the bulk of the crowd gathered for a forum on the company’s wild summer at MIT’s Wong Auditorium, with a few vendors sprinkled in as well.

About 250 people showed up in person while another 650 watched online, according to event host and MIT management professor Tom Kochan.

Aside from a group of MIT students watching quietly from a back corner and a few outside academics here and there, the in-person crowd wasn’t much different from those that comprised the summer’s big rallies in Market Basket parking lots.

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As you may recall, those employees, customers, and other supporters demanded the reinstatement of ousted CEO Arthur T. Demoulas as media and academics galore watched. This time, the tables were turned, with the Market Basket crowd eager to hear what academics had to say about them in a series of panels moderated by WBUR’s Curt Nickisch.

From the moment Market Basket employees held a July 18 rally and commenced shutting down much of the company’s operations, it was clear that regardless of how things turned up, the story was ripe for academic dissection and business school syllabuses nationwide. (There’s precedent there: the Demoulas’ 1990s legal fight, in which it was found that Arthur T. Demoulas’s family had illegally stripped control of the company from his rival/cousin Arthur S. Demoulas’s side, already populates some legal syllabuses.)

Still, it was a little strange to see the story, which captivated Massachusetts to the point that laypeople could recite the percentage of shares owned by Arthur S. Demoulas’s sister-in-law, turned into business school fare. But in taking a pretty thorough look back—and look forward—over the course of three hours, the forum provided a preview of how we can expect academics across a variety of fields to approach Market Basket as a teaching opportunity.

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Three of the panels featured MIT and Harvard professors discussing everything from leadership development to political science to marketing. MIT‘s Deborah Ancona, who focuses on leadership, broke down Market Basket’s leadership lessons in every which way, focusing on terms that populate business academia (and business in general, to be sure) like “alignment’’ and “distributed leadership’’ to say the movement succeeded because middle management and store managers were all on the same page.

In another panel, Ancona’s colleague Andrew Lo, who teaches finance, considered the effect low interest rates had on Arthur T. Demoulas’s ability to finance his pending deal to buy Market Basket, which will reportedly include more than $1 billion in debt.

Zeynep Ton, a professor with a focus on company operations, compared Market Basket’s way of doing business to companies like Costco and Trader Joe’s, which are also known for treating their retail employees well. Market Basket’s business model, known for its strong employee benefits and low prices, was thought by workers and customers to be at threat under the direction of Arthur S. Demoulas, leading to the summer’s revolt.

Commentary was peppered with statistics, data, and evidence from research pertinent to Market Basket, such as Harvard’s Marshall Ganz’s suggestion that social media best serves to amplify already-existing connections, but doesn’t do much good in leading to organized action on its own.

Labor organizer Kris Rondeau made for an interesting perspective after Market Basket workers repeatedly spurned union organizers all summer. She said the labor movement has done its share of good, but acknowledged that many of its practices might be past their prime—a notion, she said, the Market Basket protests may have put into perspective. Most specifically, she cited the dynamics of workers and management, who are usually pitted against each other in labor issues but worked in tandem to achieve their desired outcome in the Market Basket standoff. “It’s hard for us to talk about…but (the old way) just isn’t working,’’ she said.

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The final panel of the evening broke from the business school mold, featuring four of Market Basket’s store directors. They explored some of the dynamics at play during the summer, such as the difficulties part-time workers faced when their hours were cut to zero in early August, the support the managers received from customers, the awkwardness of encouraging those customers to boycott, and their resolve to put the company back together once Arthur T. Demoulas was back in charge.

Unless the company’s sale falls through, the battle of the Demoulases is likely over. But Thursday night’s event showed the world of academia is just getting started on picking through its many, many pieces.

Read Boston.com’s full coverage of the Market Basket saga.

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