Whole Foods Founder: ‘The Whole World Is Getting Fat’
For the better part of the past decade, the Whole Foods founder John Mackey, a libertarian and health food enthusiast, has been preaching the redemptive power of what he calls “conscious capitalism.” As he tells it, when businesses find their true purpose and serve not just investors, but all shareholders, everyone wins.
That enlightened perspective has not spared Mr. Mackey from the rough-and-tumble realities of capitalism in the 21st century. Three years ago, the activist hedge fund Jana Partners took a stake in Whole Foods and called on Mr. Mackey to institute sweeping changes to make the upscale grocery store more profitable, or consider selling it.
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Mr. Mackey was blunt in his assessment of Jana. (“They’re greedy bastards,” he said.) But the hedge fund got its way. Whole Foods was sold to Amazon for $13.4 billion, Jana made a tidy profit of $300 million and Mr. Mackey found himself working for Amazon’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, who is not exactly the poster boy for conscious capitalism.
Mr. Mackey contends that under Amazon’s ownership, Whole Foods hasn’t lost its soul. The company is more tech savvy and more data driven, yes, but still Whole Foods.
Still, with its high-minded founder and the resources of one of the world’s most valuable companies behind it, Whole Foods is constantly under a microscope. The company has drawn fire for its treatment of workers during the pandemic, though Mr. Mackey contends the criticism is unfair. And Mr. Mackey’s views on things like the federal minimum wage (he’s not in favor of it) can be hard to square with his kinder, gentler vision of commerce.
This interview was condensed and edited for clarity.
How do you think business should help address some of the big challenges we’re facing, like unemployment, income inequality, health care and political divisions?
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Whole Foods can’t solve all the country’s problems or all the world’s problems. We can’t take on all these problems. What we can do is do what we do. We can sell healthy food to people. We have a hundred thousand people working with the company. So we’ve been a good employer. We’ve tried to keep them safe during Covid times.
I wasn’t challenging Whole Foods to solve all of the world’s problems. But part of the idea behind “conscious capitalism” seems to be that when businesses work together they can collectively make a dent in some of these intractable issues.
We have to recognize both what business can do and what business cannot do. Any problem that we have in our society that a business can make money doing, it belongs in the private sector. Business could be doing a lot more in certain areas, if it was allowed to, like education and health care. Those are very highly regulated businesses. And so, in some sense, you have a lot more crony capitalism in highly regulated industries.
Government has to do its part. And that’s a challenge right now because the country is so divided politically. Today, it’s probably the most divided since maybe the Civil War.
America was founded on the principles of liberty and equality. It’s not either — it has to be both. We need more liberty. We need more equality. We need justice, and we also need freedom. All of these ideas are important and they all have to be affirmed, but it seems like we’re doing a lot of squabbling right now.ADVERTISEMENT
What do you make of President Trump, who has taken steps to reduce regulations on businesses and to reduce corporate taxes, but is also so divisive?
I’m not going to go there. It’s not my job to evaluate t