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Market Basket Documentary Offers Lessons in Business Ethics

Co-producer Ted Leonsis Returns to Campus for Screening Hosted by New Donahue Center

Producers Nick Buzzell and Ted Leonsis with UMass President Marty Meehan Photo by Tory Wesnofske
UMass President Marty Meehan, right, moderates a Q&A session with producers Nick Buzzell, left, and Ted Leonsis following a screening of "We the People: The Market Basket Effect" at University Crossing.

12/18/2017
By Ed Brennen

The university’s newly created Richard and Nancy Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility didn’t have to look far for a textbook case of putting principles before profits.

Less than a mile away from where the DeMoulas/Market Basket grocery empire was born 100 years ago, the Donahue Center recently hosted a special public screening of “We the People: The Market Basket Effect.” The documentary film chronicles the family-owned company’s decades-long legal drama and the massive customer boycott in the summer of 2014 that led to the triumphant return of its ousted CEO, Arthur T. Demoulas.

UMass President Marty Meehan hosted an hourlong question-and-answer session with the film’s co-producers, Nick Buzzell and Ted Leonsis, following the screening, which drew nearly 250 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members to University Crossing’s Moloney Ballroom.

“Every time I see the film, I get teary-eyed,” Meehan told the crowd. “It’s so much about what Lowell is and what an immigrant city is all about.”

Philanthropist Nancy Donahue, whose $1 million gift to the university established the center named in honor of her and her late husband, also attended.
Julie Chen and Jacquie Moloney chat with Ted Leonsis Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, center, and Vice Chancellor Julie Chen chat with former UML student Ted Leonsis before the screening of his film at University Crossing.

“The next generation of business leaders needs to understand that you can do well and do good,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney said in thanking Donahue for her continued support of the university. “Nancy and her late husband shared a great passion for business ethics education, and it’s incumbent on all of us to teach the values that we saw in this film.”

Leonsis, a highly successful businessman and philanthropist, grew up in Lowell and attended the university for two years in the early 1970s. After graduating from Georgetown University, he went on to become president of AOL and is the founder and CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns three professional sports teams in Washington, D.C.: the NBA’s Wizards, the NHL’s Capitals and the WNBA’s Mystics. 

A longtime friend of Demoulas, Leonsis compared the Market Basket story to the Arab Spring, in that people used social media to organize and make their voices heard. In the case of Market Basket, the customer boycott and employee rallies prevented the chain from being sold to an outside venture capitalist firm that likely would have done away with the employee profit-sharing started by Arthur T. DeMoulas.

“Businesses matter to their communities and their employees, and managing for Main Street instead of just Wall Street really sets apart good businesses,” said Leonsis, who added that the university is fortunate to have such a unique and nationally known story right in its own backyard.
Nancy Donahue with Ted Leonsis and Nick Buzzell at movie screening Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Philanthropist Nancy Donahue poses with Ted Leonsis, center, and Nick Buzzell after the screening at University Crossing.

“You should claim this here at UMass Lowell as your story and make it the bedrock of your teaching,” he said, “because the Donahue family was so benevolent in saying it’s not just going to be business – we’re going to be differentiated with business ethics. 

The Manning School of Business, which is home to the Donahue Center, has already made a book about the Market Basket saga required reading for all freshmen.

“It’s an incredible case study in conscious capitalism and community,” said Assoc. Prof. Scott Latham, who was interviewed for the documentary along with Meehan. Latham said the Market Basket story resonates with students because many of them have worked for the company. “Students can believe in it because they’ve seen it first-hand,” he said.
 
Junior business administration major Amy Ward started working at the Market Basket in her hometown of Haverhill a few months after Demoulas reached a deal with shareholders to buy back full control of the company for $1.5 billion. She agreed that the film and book provide valuable lessons in ethics for students.
 
“Hopefully, anyone looking to start a business will see that being kind to people is more important than just being kind to yourself,” Ward said after seeing the film, which was narrated by actor (and Lowell native) Michael Chiklis. 

Alum Brian Goguen, who graduated from the business school in 1978 with a degree in accounting, was familiar with the story behind the two-month boycott but appreciated the opportunity to attend the screening and hear from the film’s producers.
Ted Leonsis and Nick Buzzell hold up UML hockey jerseys Photo by Tory Wesnofske
Ted Leonsis and Nick Buzzell hold up their UMass Lowell hockey jerseys given to them at the screening.

“I thought they did an excellent job, and it was even better to get a big-picture view of the whole thing,” said Goguen, who owns a financial planning business in Billerica.

Under the direction of Asst. Prof. Erica Steckler and visiting instructor Elise Magnant, the Donahue Center will expand education in ethics universitywide to all majors, offer new research and outreach opportunities for faculty and students, and develop ethics-focused programs and events such as the documentary screening for the university and the public.

“We couldn’t have imagined a better kickoff event,” Magnant said. “It was a wonderful evening.”

“It was tremendous honor for Mrs. Donahue to be here, as well,” Steckler added.

Manning School Dean Sandy Richtermeyer wasn’t living in New England in the summer of 2014, but says she read about the massive rallies in support of Demoulas, aka “Artie T.”

“It’s a wonderful lesson for students about how culture has such an impact on an organization,” Richtermeyer said. “When people come together, that’s stronger than any strategic goal or best-laid plan. It’s a fascinating example of what a great leader can do to motivate and bring people together.”