Any buyer making an offer to purchase the troubled Market Basket supermarket chain would face significant risks as it tried to return employees and customers to the stores, analysts and attorneys following the situation say.
Market Basket representatives say the chain is entertaining multiple offers to buy a controlling share of the struggling company’s 71 New England stores, including one in Biddeford.
Likely candidates for buying the Massachusetts-based Demoulas Market Basket Supermarkets Inc. include chains from other regions looking to break into the New England market, existing New England chains – such as Scarborough-based Hannaford Supermarkets – interested in absorbing a competitor, and former Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas, who was voted out by the company’s board of directors in June. That move started a three-week chain reaction of employees refusing to work until Demoulas was reinstated as CEO, and sympathetic customers boycotting the store to support him.
Whatever the outcome, Market Basket’s leadership needs to act soon or face a likely bankruptcy, grocery store analysts said.
Each type of prospective buyer would have to overcome a unique set of challenges, they said.
An out-of-market buyer choosing to operate under the original brand would have to convince Market Basket’s loyal customers that the in-store experience would not change under the new ownership, said Jeff Metzger, publisher of Columbia, Maryland-based Food Trade News.
“The Market Basket infrastructure is just a box,” Metzger said. “It’s what goes inside the box that makes it special.”
Market Basket is widely known for its low prices and friendly, knowledgeable employees, many of whom have been with the company for decades.
It’s a formula that would not be easy to replicate from scratch, he said, especially since the bulk of Market Basket’s employees have been taken off the schedule, and many are actively protesting Demoulas’ ouster and demanding his return. Many longtime shoppers have been honoring an employee-initiated boycott, and most stores have been virtually empty for weeks.
A simple change of ownership isn’t likely to change that, Metzger said.
“New Buyer A can’t just come in and expect peace in the valley,” he said.
It would take time to restore employee and consumer confidence in the brand, Metzger said, and some of the damage from the recent turmoil may be impossible to undo.
Another possible buyer scenario would be a New England supermarket chain absorbing Market Basket to expand its reach and eliminate a competitor, said Bryan Dench, an attorney in Auburn who specializes in mergers and acquisitions.
In that case, it is more likely that the Market Basket brand would be retired, and stores would be shut down in locations where there was significant overlap with the buyer’s stores, he said.
The Boston Globe reported Thursday that Hannaford Supermarkets. parent company, Delhaize Group, is one of the bidders for the embattled chain. However, a Hannaford spokesman in Scarborough said the Globe’s information, attributed to unnamed sources close to the sale negotiations, is an unsubstantiated rumor.
“Consistent with established policy, Delhaize Group does not comment on rumors or speculation regarding plans to acquire or divest businesses,” spokesman Michael Norton said in an email.
Jon Springer, retail editor at New York-based Supermarket News, said it seems unlikely that a company such as Hannaford would buy Market Basket for the sole purpose of shutting it down. Such a move would not provide sufficient value to make it worth the purchase price, he said.
“I can’t imagine that that would make a lot of sense,” Springer said.
It’s possible that such a buyer could also run afoul of regulations prohibiting anti-competitive practices, he said.
Demoulas was fired June 23 by Market Basket’s board of directors, which is controlled by his cousin, Arthur S. Demoulas, and family members loyal to him. They own 50.5 percent of the company, and thus have majority control over decision-making.
Arthur T. Demoulas is a hero to many in the company because of his employee-friendly demeanor and generous compensation policies. Shortly after he was fired, some Market Basket employees began walking off the job, including delivery drivers who normally stock the stores with fresh produce and meats.
Employees have engaged in mass protests, and the vast majority of customers have honored an employee-initiated boycott of the company’s 71 New England stores, including the one in Biddeford.
Arthur T. Demoulas, whose side of the family owns 49.5 percent, has submitted his own offer to purchase the remaining Market Basket shares from his relatives.
Metzger said he believes selling the company to Arthur T. is the only scenario that would restore customer goodwill and employee faith in the company.
“There’s only one realistic buyer,” he said.
Still, even he would have a difficult time maintaining the status quo if he were to buy the company outright, Dench said.
Market Basket has not advertised its asking price for the company, but with more than $4 billion in annual revenue it is undoubtedly worth billions of dollars.
Even if Arthur T. only had to buy the half he doesn’t already own, it would mean either incurring billions in debt or bringing in additional investors, Dench said.
Investors might be squeamish about buying a stake in such a dysfunctional company, he said, and having to pay off billions in debt could force Market Basket to either raise prices or reduce employee compensation to remain in business.
One aspect of the Market Basket story that could spook potential investors is the impression that a longstanding feud between the two sides of the Demoulas family is influencing business decisions, the analysts said.
Whether or not it lets Arthur T. participate in discussions about choosing a buyer, the board still has a fiduciary responsibility to him as a major shareholder to take the best possible offer – even if that offer comes from Arthur T. himself, Springer said. If the board does not act in the best interests of all shareholders, it could be sued for breach of fiduciary duty, he said.
Metzger said Market Basket’s board must be under intense pressure to make a decision before the company runs out of money.
“Whatever cash reserve they have is being frittered away,” he said. “I think this issue gets resolved within a week because of what’s going on.”
J. Craig Anderson can be contacted at 791-6390 or at: