I know something about dysfunctional family businesses. I grew up in one.
My father, Frank, and his brothers, Sam and Bill, owned a factory called the “Claremont Waste Manufacturing Company,” which turned waste textiles into flock. A century ago, the company did 100% of the world’s flock business.
Whenever I mention the family business, they ask, “What’s flock?”
“It’s the fuzzy stuff on greeting cards and wallpaper,” I tell them.
My father and Sam, who each owned 40%, stopped speaking to each other sometime before I was born. I never found out why.
The company is now the Claremont Flock Corporation of Leominster, Massachusetts. It is part of a trade group called the “American Flock Association,” whose website asks, “Can you imagine a World Without Flock?” Maybe my father and his brothers were on to something.
I thought about my father and Sam as I, like most New Englanders, watched the recent Market Basket shootout. But unlike the dysfunctional management at the shoddy mill in Claremont Lower Village, the DeMoulas cousins, Arthur S. and Arthur T., battled in the public arena, for many years in the courts, this year in the newspapers.
When Arthur S. fired Arthur T. last June, we all witnessed an amazing phenomenon. Thousands of employees stopped showing up for work, and hundreds of thousands of customers “voted with their feet” and went to Shaw’s or Hannaford’s. The timing was convenient for those of us who usually focus on baseball during the summer months. The Red Sox were 8 ½ games out of first place, and as the “strike” by these non-union men and women gathered steam, the air went completely out of the Red Sox. By August 15 the team was comfortably mired in last place, hardly anyone was going to Fenway Park, and no one was shopping at Market Basket. I went into the Rindge store just to see what it was like to be the only customer. It was creepy, and I made a quick escape, empty-handed.
On August 28, with the Red Sox 18 ½ games out, the two Arthurs agreed to a buyout, which New Englanders celebrated as if we had won the pennant. A few days later I went back to the Rindge store, where my friend Vernon greeted me. He and the other “Associates,” as Market Basket employees are called, were busy restocking shelves, and they were smiling. I took my time, and then bought a few items. It felt good.
Like Market Basket, my father’s mill was non-union, and that is how he wanted it. (When I was a boy, I thought “union” was a swear word.) And, also like Market Basket, employees usually stayed for a long time. I remember one man named “Andy.” He had been with the company from the beginning, sometime around 1912.
The parallels between the Steinfield and DeMoulas family businesses are far from exact. It was widely known in Claremont that Frank and Sam didn’t get along, and it seemed likely that sooner or later one brother would buy out the other. I suspect many of the employees wanted Frank to buy Sam’s interest, but when the showdown came in 1955, my father’s poor health prevented him from being the buyer. And so our side of the family went on to other things, and my cousins eventually took over the company.
My father had no middle initial, but even so I think he and Arthur T. had a lot in common. When I was young, I often heard him say, “The most important thing in life is your good name.”