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Workers cheer return of former CEO amid settlement in New England supermarket chain feud

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BOSTON - As Arthur T. Demoulas made a triumphant return Thursday to lead the Market Basket supermarket chain, it was the words of his employees that summed up their fierce loyalty to him 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 per cent of the company owned by his cousin and rival, Arthur S. Demoulas, and other family members.

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."

Schmidt said Demoulas once called a store manager after he heard the man's daughter was critically injured in a car crash. Demoulas wanted to know whether the hospital she was in was giving her the best care possible. "Do we need to move her?" he asked, Schmidt said.

"He is just a good man," Schmidt said.

The chain, known for its low prices, lost tens of millions of dollars during the standoff. As part-time employees saw their hours cut and Market Basket's suppliers began to complain about lost revenue, the governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire took the extraordinary step of getting personally involved in the negotiations.

Business analysts said the devotion shown by employees to Demoulas is highly unusual in the corporate world, where there is often a huge gap between workers and their CEOs.

"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."

Workers celebrated in Market Basket stores as customers began to return.

"I am thrilled!" said Shannon Mort, a cashier at the West Bridgewater store's cafe.

"We couldn't wait to get back," Barbara Farrell, 74, said as she and her husband filled their shopping cart.

In a Market Basket store in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, 93-year-old Al Gerrato said it felt like "the end of the war."

"It becomes part of your family, and you feel like you just can't stop any other place and get anything, you have to come to Market Basket."

___

Associated Press writer Holly Ramer contributed to this report from Portsmouth, N.H.

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