Did John Mackey's Media March Cost Him the Whole Foods Chairmanship?

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Since Whole Foods CEO John Mackey wrote his now-infamous op-ed in The Wall Street Journal about health care this summer, he's been a target. It's unclear whether his own conscious consumers or media heat—first cranked up in mid November for the December issue of Fast Company and in the last few days in The New Yorker and Reason—led him to announce via his blog on Christmas Eve that he was relinquishing his role as Chairman of the Whole Foods board. But something clearly got to him.

"I have held the Chairman title since Whole Foods Market's beginning in 1978, but the reality is that today it is merely a title with no authority or responsibilities," Mackey wrote under the misleadingly benign headline "Latest 8k Filing." "Despite this shift in responsibilities, Whole Foods, along with many other companies with combined CEO/Chairman roles, has been targeted by corporate governance activists for several years now seeking a separation of these roles," Mackey went on to say, adding, "The members of the Board and E-Team tried to talk me out of giving up the title; however, I don't believe it is in the best interest of our company or our stakeholders to devote any more time or resources to fight this misperception over a title any longer."

In December, Fast Company looked into the quasi-hippie's efforts to reshape capitalism, and came up questioning whether his ideals match his actions. Mackey just landed on the January cover of Reason and also snagged a feature in The New Yorker.

In Fast Company's piece, Danielle Sacks examines how Whole Foods' success and growth is leading to the compromise of the very values it was built on—produce is typically flown in from other continents, rather than purchased locally, and Ceres ranked the company's environmental record among the lowest of corporations. And even while Mackey himself said, to the Journal, that his company sells "a bunch of junk," he stands by his product.

"If I get run over by a truck later today, I will have already in my life made a difference in helping many people," he says. "Customers are better off because millions of people are eating in a way they never would have had we never existed." That may very well be true, but as he continues to explain his ideals to Fast Company—the four pillars that support the "higher purpose" of conscious capitalism are the good, the true, the beautiful, and the heroic, and he commends Berkshire Hathaway for pursuing "the beautiful"—it's easy to lose sight of his actual goals.

The Q and A in libertarian Reason was, unsurprisingly, the most kind to Mackey, giving him the chance to explain how "conscious capitalism" will fix the world's problems. "The best way to think about business is in terms of a complex system with stakeholders who are interdependent: customers, employees, suppliers, investors in the larger community," he tells Reason. "Capitalism is creating value for all of these people, creating value for customers, creating value for employees by providing jobs, creating values for our society through taxes, creating value for investors. It's creating prosperity. It's wonderful, and yet how poorly we do articulating that."

Regarding Mackey's evolution as a public figure, he tells the New Yorker that he had to "grow up," and not "embarrass the company," saying, specifically, "I can't have affairs with women. One of the things that happened was you have more money and you have more opportunities for such things. And those are sort of off-limits. You can't do that. Think of Mark Sanford, in South Carolina."

Sorting through Mackey's ideals, actions, and thoughts is a hefty task, but one thing's for sure: The man's got some entertaining things to say. We just wonder whether his board was as entertained as we were.

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9 Comments

  • Chuck Blakeman

    Stephanie,

    Sacks did not "examine" Whole Foods' - she wrote an OpEd and disguised it as journalism. "Examine" doesn't cut the mustard here.

    Example: "Liberal Whole Foods customers organized nationwide boycotts, while self-described 'radical conservative' Tea Party types rallied around Mackey." So liberals aren't "self-described"? And the use of "types" here is also perjorative. Why did she not say "self-described 'radical leftist' liberal types"? This biased description of one side is the stuff of OpEds.

    Example: describing Mackey's conference room as "soulless". Really? Beige is now soulless? What colors have soul? I sure would like Sacks to tell me so I can repaint my office and get me some soul. That's also the stuff of OpEds.

    Example: "Mackey's interpretation of what constitutes higher purpose can be perplexing." Sacks then cites doing "good" and being "beautiful" as examples of a perplexing view of higher purpose. Who is Sacks to sit in judgment of doing good and being beautiful as not a higher purpose? Maybe it's not HER highest purpose, but it's an OpEd approach for her to judge doing good and being beautiful as not a higher purpose. The use of "perplexing" here is simply smug.

    Example: "Whole Foods is itself a study in compromise." Sacks then makes her judgments of what compromise means: 1) not buying food locally, 2) not being a union shop, 3) name-calling Mackey's store fronts as "Hummers" because they happen to be bigger than Sacks would prefer, 4) selling natural grilled cheese puffs - clearly a cardinal sin of healthy eating, and 4) insinuating that Mackey shouldn't sell meat because he himself is a Vegan. Therein lies the most objectionable part of Sack's OpEd - she has a view of what it should all look like and thinks it's her duty to force on us her view of the world whether we want it or not - the classic liberal "I know what's better for you than you do" approach. I might go in to buy the natural cheese puffs and come out with a salad, but Sacks would prefer to preach only to the converted.

    Example: "Mackey's position sounds a lot like capitalism as we've known it for generations. Mackey might be willing to rely on the invisible hand and other miracles, but the rest of us don't have that luxury." First, if you talk to classic hard-line investor-focused capitalist business owners, Mackey's view of the world doesn't sound anything like what they think they are doing. Second, judging what Mackey is doing as waiting around for miracles is wholly dismissive of all the action he is taking to change the world around him. And I don't even know what Sacks is talking about saying "the rest of us don't have that luxury.", except that it is a good, biting and contrarian way to end an OpEd piece.

    If Sacks was interviewing the CEO of Enron this OpEd might have made sense. But wasting four pages of Fast Company to trash someone who is actually trying to do some good in the world and isn't perfect (Al Gore flies private jets and owns ridiculously big houses) simply because it isn't good enough by Sacks' measure, is not only a waste of time, but doesn't help Sacks promote her own idealistic far left liberal agenda. But it is a true hallmark of fanatics on both the left and right - progress should always be damned if it's not pure.

    She has the right to trash Mackey and Whole Foods all she wants in an OpEd, but not if she is "examining" them as a journalist. Shame again on Fast Company for promoting opinion as journalism and furthering the cause of those that say journalism is dead.

  • Chris Reich

    His "ideals" are ok because his balance sheet looks good? So EXXON must be super ideal, deistic.

    This is a problem. If we consider monetary gain to be proof positive "ideals", we are in trouble. But then, I'm not sure what you actually mean by using the word "ideals".

    This is akin to success as proof of god's blessings?

    Whole Foods, because of size and power, has written the rules on organic farming. If you or I try to grow food organically, using no chemicals at all on our 1 acre farm, we will never be able to secure the organic certification. Whole Foods has closed the door to competition.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • Tyler Gray

    The [sic] was my addition. Not Stephanie's. But you're right. Taking it out now.

  • Linda Dowling

    Nobody's perfect. Is the "world" a better place because of Whole Foods? You bet. Are there items therein that contradict their principals? Right again. Is John Mackey's voice & opinions not as valuable as the next persons? Can we still respect the individual & get over the personal offense cloud that hangs over us? I hope so. When our rights are trampled, our freedom goes down the drain - never to rise again. Get the plunger! Quick!!

  • Chris Reich

    Before falling in love with Whole Foods Markets, please take a close look at how they've seized control of an industry under the guise of 'natural' and 'organic'. Do they permit the use of pesticides? You bet. Do they import food from China? Yup.

    So if you think you are buying hippie food---clean and honest natural stuff---please look under the hood of this Edsel. The distance between perception and reality is astounding. There is some brilliant marketing here.

    The food bought in New York didn't come from a local farm in all probability. It likely came from a super farm in California. And your seafood comes 'fresh' from China.

    Chris Reich
    www.TeachU.com

  • James Kemp

    Stephanie, I'd suggest you check your 4th grade grammar before you criticize Mr. Mackey by inserting your "[sic]". His writing, like his view on health care, is correct. He has proceeded a gerund with the possessive form of a noun.

  • Kevin Ivey

    Love Mackey; if we had a Whole Foods here in Cypress, TX (hint, hint) we would shop there.

  • John Weller

    I would say Mackey's ideals must be OK for his business based on his companys balance sheet. Now if you were say on the board of a news organization and your balance sheet looked like the New York Times then you must ponder the idea that maybe your ideals are not great for business.