The $2.2 million judgment against Don Marsh for using Marsh Supermarkets, the grocery chain he led for more than 30 years, as a piggy bank to pay for lavish trips and extramarital affairs caps what will surely be a mixed legacy for the once-powerful businessman.
Don Marsh, in advertisements that were ubiquitous in the 1980s and 1990s, liked to portray himself as every Hoosier’s hometown grocer. It was an image that fit, considering the small-town roots of the chain started in Muncie in 1931 by his father, Ermal Marsh. But the wholesome veneer didn’t tell the full story.
It became clear by the late 1990s that Marsh shareholders were going to miss a bull market at the end of the 20th century that lifted other grocery stocks by triple-digit percentages. Marsh shares, meanwhile, crept up a relatively weak 11 percent, and the company installed anti-takeover provisions that prevented shareholders from realizing the gains they might have enjoyed in an era of industry consolidation.
Don Marsh stubbornly clung to the chain’s independence, fending off a change in ownership as long as possible, but it wasn’t entirely clear why until Sun Capital Partners bought the floundering company in 2006.
The end of family control meant the end of the lavish lifestyles that Marsh family members lived on the company dime. At the trial, stories came out of how Marsh family members milked the company, through trips to exotic international locales and money spent on Don Marsh’s mistresses.
The jury in the trial that ended Feb. 15 saw through the flimsy argument, mounted by Marsh’s defense, that the uncontrolled spending was primarily for business reasons. In doing so, they handed a victory to Sun, which had promptly terminated Don Marsh as CEO and filed the civil suit in 2009 to recover some of the money the jury ultimately agreed was squandered.
That’s the sordid side of the Marsh family’s stewardship of the company. Lost in the final chapters of the family’s story is the reality that the company put its money where its mouth was when it came to being civic-minded. The Marsh name was everywhere—attached to Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra performances, looming over the Indiana Pacers home court, and supporting numerous lower-profile arts and sporting events.
In the very different business environment that exists today, local companies with big hearts, big egos and wallets to match are an endangered species.
The Marsh jury got it right in the case against the family patriarch, but the outcome isn’t a happy affair. It’s a sad reminder of what we’ve lost.•
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