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Most Influential CEOs: Whole Foods' John Mackey Resists Conventional Label


A non-believer in climate change or universal health care, he still owns "organic" with a blockbuster shop.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods (WFMI), is something of a paradox.

The "right-wing hippie" as he's been described, is one part flower child (the flowers being organically grown, of course) and one part libertarian free-marketeer who counts himself among the followers of Ayn Rand's objectivist movement.

In his early twenties, Mackey, who had dropped out of two universities six times, joined a vegetarian co-op, even though he wasn't a vegetarian. His goal? Meeting women. He hooked up with Renee Lawson, with whom he opened an organic grocery store called Safer Way (a play on supermarket giant Safeway (SWY)). A couple of years later, Mackey, Lawson, and two competitors joined forces to open the first Whole Foods.

In a way, John Mackey's opposing viewpoints are central to who he is as a person and to the authenticity of Whole Foods as an enterprise.

"I have my own views, and they're not necessarily the same as Whole Foods'," Mackey told a reporter. "People want me to suppress who I am. I guess that's why so many politicians and CEOs get to be sort of boring, because they end up suppressing any individuality to conform to some phony, inauthentic way of being. I'd rather be myself."

Mackey's way of being has helped Whole Foods grow into a company with sales of approximately $8 billion a year as well as one that changed the way a nation eats.

"When you look at the power to move billions of dollars through the agricultural economy to address some deep and unconscionable problems, you have to credit Whole Foods for being one of the pivot points," Gary Hirshberg, founder of Stonyfield Farms, told the New Yorker. "It deserves a lot of the credit for breaking us out of a cul-de-sac in terms of food and health, and the health of the planet."

As far as the health of the planet goes, Mackey's position on global warming isn't one you'd likely expect.

Mackey asserts that "no scientific consensus exists" regarding climate change and refers to the debate on global warming as "hysteria." He cautions against allowing the issue "to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty." And the free markets side of his personality leads him to make comments such as, "Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures."

As far as the health of people goes, Mackey is in favor of free-market solutions to health care (Whole Foods happens to provide health insurance for its employees), rather than a government-run plan.

An op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal last year began with the quote:

"The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people's money."
-- Margaret Thatcher

The piece continued:

"At Whole Foods we allow our team members to vote on what benefits they most want the company to fund. Our Canadian and British employees express their benefit preferences very clearly -- they want supplemental health-care dollars that they can control and spend themselves without permission from their governments."

Then, Mackey's adherence to Randian theories came into full bloom:

"Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending -- heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity -- are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption, and other healthy lifestyle choices."

While Mackey's views are generally steadfast, he's open-minded enough to recognize nuance. After being lectured at a 2003 shareholder meeting by Lauren Ornelas, director of Viva! USA, a group focused on the living conditions of farm animals, Mackey was at first annoyed, then looked into the issue and announced that Whole Foods would immediately begin using its buying power to ensure the meat it sells comes from animals that have been treated humanely before slaughter.

Then, he became a vegan.

For someone that holds such disparate ideas dear to his heart, John Mackey's worldview can be summed up thusly:

"Whole Foods is not a business for a clique, or for the elite. We wanted the philosophy of the stores to spread throughout the culture. We wanted to change the world."

And he seems to be doing it, one organic kumquat at a time.
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