(c) Dianna Huff 2014

In his July 20, 2014 Financial Post article, “Seven lessons corporate CEOs need to learn from small businesses,” Rick Spence writes that big companies need to retain a human touch.

“Consumers today,” Spence writes, “want to do business with companies that reflect their values.”

Yep. I could have told him that (as well as the other six common sense “lessons” too).

As I write this, employees of the local supermarket chain, Market Basket, have protested the firing of their beloved CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas.

A third-generation, family-owned business, Market Basket has gone through all kinds of internal family fighting, which recently culminated in the board ousting Arthur T., the founder’s grandson. (Background info — it’s a good story.)

Under his leadership, he instituted an employee retirement fund and increased wages — all while keeping costs low, low, low. He also created a vision for the company: The customer comes first.

To protest his ouster, Market Basket employees have brought the 71-store business to a standstill. Since they’re not union-based and thus technically can’t go on “strike,” they’ve simply stopped stocking the store shelves — and drivers have stopped driving the trucks.

Although stores are still fully staffed, the shelves are empty.

Employees stand outside the stores — on their own time! — asking people to sign petitions to reinstate Arthur T. and to not shop at Market Basket until the board meets their demand.

Even more amazing — the public agrees!

Why? People are passionate about shopping at Market Basket.

It all comes down to values

I’ve been a Market Basket shopper since I moved to the East Coast in 1998. Yes, the chain does have the lowest prices, but I realized a long time ago that I shop there for other reasons as well.

1. The most courteous employees — Anytime you can’t find something on a shelf, just ask. A store employee will then walk you to the correct aisle and hand the item to you. If the employee can’t find it — or it’s not on the shelf — he or she will check stock in the back. Amazing.

All employees are professional and courteous, and all male employees, from baggers to managers, wear shirts and ties. As you begin your checkout, the cashier greets you and has a conversation with you. As you leave the check out, both cashier and bagger say, “Good bye! Have a nice day.” If you need assistance, someone will walk you out to your vehicle and load your groceries.

And, someone is always out in the parking lot collecting carts (or carriages, as they say here in New England). I’ve had young men come over dozens of times to help me finish loading and take away my cart. Love it!

2. Changing product mix — Although Market Basket is staunchly “New England” and offers very little in the way of “frills,” the company has done an excellent job of listening to customers. While you’ll find aisles of typical food products, you’ll also find a great selection of organic food and produce.

In fact, signs throughout the produce section state, “We have over 100 organic items. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, ask us.” Each time I shop, I’m continually amazed at what I find tucked away on shelves.

3. Returning profits to shoppers — For 2014, Market Basket did something extraordinary. They discounted all grocery items 4% (except for milk, cigarettes, and one other item). If your Stonyfield Plain Yogurt is priced at $3.69, Market Basket takes off 4% at the register — or .15 cents.

At the bottom of the receipt, you see how much you saved for that visit — and the checker always makes sure to circle the amount. Market Basket in-store signs say you’ll save the equivalent of two weeks of groceries over the course of the year.


Who does this? No one!

Is it any wonder that employees and shoppers alike want Arthur T. back — and fast?

Values are bred in the bone

In Built to Last, Jim Collins and Jerry I. Porras talk a great deal about building companies that endure around a core ideology and core values.

“A core ideology,” Collins writes, “gives a company a strong sense of identity and a thread of continuity that holds the organization together in the face of change.” (Source)

Core values are those bred-in-the-values that never change — even if the business does. For Market Basket, one of its core values is “the customer is first.” While lots of companies say this, Market Basket lives and breathes it — in dozens of big and small ways.

As the owner of a small, family-run manufacturing firm, you have core values too. Maybe one of your values is highest product quality. Or continual innovation. Or making good when your company has made an honest mistake.

Values, as Collins and Porras point out, aren’t cliches you find on those motivational posters. Nor are they a mind-numbing mission statement copied from some other company.

Values are those things that drive your company. They’re what you turn to when something goes amiss, and they’re what you rely on as you move forward with change and innovation.

If you have strong values, your employees believe in them, too — which is a core element for building a great company.

Whatever your company’s values, celebrate them. Infuse your culture, your employees, and your business practices with them. Communicate them night and day. Read them regularly to remind yourself for whom and what your company stands.

Like the stones in a wall or foundation, core values are what make your company strong and enduring.

While you can learn all sorts of things from the Market Basket story, the key thing for me is that Arthur T. built a great company based on core values. He communicated these values so well, employees have protested his firing.

Now that’s saying something.

Want to add to the conversation? Please do so in the comments.