Whole Foods CEO John Mackey calls Jana Partners 'greedy bastards'

Dive Brief:

  • In an interview with Texas Monthly, Whole Foods CEO called activist investor Jana Partners “greedy bastards” and said the firm, which has pressured the chain to sell after disclosing a nearly 9% stake in April, is “putting a bunch of propaganda out there, trying to destroy my reputation and the reputation of Whole Foods, because it’s in their self-interest to do so.”
  • The comments come as Whole Foods faces calls from investors to turn around declining same-store sales and store traffic. The retailer, which came to prominence as a leading seller of natural and organic products, saw its value erode as mainstream competitors began offering many of the same items and services.
  • Mackey said he doesn’t intend to sell the company, and signaled that Whole Foods’ turnaround strategy will entail a return to the retailer’s roots. “We’re going back to being a little bit more niche than we were. We are not going to be the supermarket that everybody’s going to want to shop at.”

Dive Insight:

Stubborn, peevish, brilliant and completely, irrepressibly himself, John Mackey has been an asset as well as a liability to the company he founded nearly 40 years ago. His vision of Whole Foods as more than just a retailer, but as a vehicle for “conscious capitalism” — a term he coined — helped build one of the most successful grocery chains in the modern era.

But that vision, it seems, blinded the company to the realities of modern food retailing. As other grocers moved in on Whole Foods’ turf, the Austin, TX-based chain and its guru kept trying to operate above the fray.

Now that the company has come back down to earth, it needs to institute many of the no-nonsense blocking-and-tackling measures that define traditional supermarket retailing. But reading through Texas Monthly’s illuminating profile of Mackey, one comes away with the distinct impression that Mackey is not a blocking-and-tackling kind of guy. From his diatribes against Wall Street and Jana Partners to his idealistic defense of Whole Foods as a weapon in the battle against obesity, it’s clear the 63-year-old executive feels he doesn’t deserve to be in this position.

“We’re not like every other corporation,” Mackey told the magazine. “Whole Foods Market doesn’t primarily care about money. It primarily cares about fulfilling its purpose.”

This “purpose” matters, of course, since it’s a big part of what made the company so successful. But prioritizing it above the financial realities of the business is how the company got into trouble in the first place.

Mackey, who clings to this vision of Whole Foods as more than just a retailer, probably should have stepped down as CEO years ago. He told Texas Monthly that he’s confident Whole Foods can turn its fortunes around, and that he has no intention of selling his “baby.” But the reality is that if he doesn’t produce results, and fast, he will be forced to put the company he started as “Safer Way” back in 1978 up for sale.

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Filed Under: Grocery Corporate
Top image credit: Gage Skidmore