The Whole Foods C.E.O. John Mackey’s “Conscious Capitalism”

The Whole Foods C.E.O. John Mackey’s “Conscious Capitalism”

In 1980, John Mackey co-founded Whole Foods Market, which combined the ethos of natural-foods stores with the larger range of offerings found in traditional supermarkets. The first store was located in Austin, Texas, but the company quickly expanded; it now has more than five hundred stores. In 2017, Amazon purchased Whole Foods for nearly fourteen billion dollars.

Mackey, who remains C.E.O., may be understood as a forerunner to the archetypal tech founder, combining a countercultural style with a hostility to regulation. As the face of Whole Foods, Mackey is particularly known for his early promotion of humane animal treatment, his opposition to government-funded health care, and his skepticism of the science behind global warming. Nick Paumgarten, who profiled Mackey for The New Yorker in 2010, referred to him as a “rare bird,” specifically a “right-wing hippie.”

Last year, Whole Foods clashed with workers who demanded hazard pay and expanded sick leave during the pandemic. In March of 2020, Amazon announced that it would provide two weeks of paid sick leave to employees diagnosed with COVID-19 but declined to expand the policy further. Whole Foods offered hazard pay to workers that month but discontinued it in May. Numerous workers also filed lawsuits over what they claimed was discrimination by the company, after they were sent home or otherwise punished for wearing Black Lives Matter masks and apparel. (A federal judge recently ruled in favor of Whole Foods.)

In the fall of 2020, Mackey published “Conscious Leadership: Elevating Humanity Through Business,” a book that describes his philosophical approach to business and offers an account of the difficulties of running a large company. I spoke by phone with Mackey in September, shortly after “Conscious Leadership” was published. In my conversation with Mackey, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed his relationship with Jeff Bezos, how Whole Foods has approached worker safety during the pandemic, and why Mackey wants to steer clear of conversations about politics.

What have you learned about running a company in the past four decades?

The reason that I’m hesitating is that I’ve learned about a billion things in the last forty-two years, but you put purpose first. Purpose is extremely important. I think that’s beginning to penetrate into more mainstream thinking about business, meaning it’s not just about making a profit; it’s about a higher purpose and creating value for others.

The importance of stakeholders, not just the investors. Customers obviously matter, employees matter, suppliers matter, communities matter, then the environment matters. All of these are important, and business needs to create value for all of them. Also, these stakeholders are like a system. They’re all interdependent. I’ve learned that you need to manage that system to optimize it for everybody. Instead of thinking in terms of trade-offs—if one is gaining, someone else is losing—you look for strategies where they’re all gaining, they’re all winning, they’re all flourishing. That’s just very different from the way most people think about business, because they think of it in terms of the polarity. If somebody’s winning, somebody else is losing. If somebody is getting rich, somebody else is getting poor. They’ve got a win/lose framework. The beautiful thing about stakeholder theory, and I think about healthy capitalism, is that all of these stakeholders can simultaneously be winning. That’s just a very important idea, a revolutionary idea.

Are you saying having a sense of purpose actually makes your business better as a business? Or are you saying that companies need to be aware of things besides the bottom line, even if purpose doesn’t help the bottom line and could even hurt it? Those seem like two different ideas to me.

That’s the kind of binary thinking I’m rejecting here. Purpose is important intrinsically, in its own right. Whether it makes a profit or not, purpose is important. However, purpose engaged in thoughtfully will also increase the bottom line, but it’s an end in itself. Treating people kindly is an end in itself. It’s not either/or. It’s not a trade-off. Purpose and profit, not purpose or profit.

Have you talked to Jeff Bezos about theories of business, and do you think that he and you see these things similarly, or are there differences?

Well, I don’t talk to Jeff Bezos very often. Generally, when I talk to Jeff, it’s going to be in a group setting. It’s not going to be Jeff and I sitting around, talking about the theories of business. We had a couple of meetings like that right when the merger was happening, but I don’t think I’ve met one-on-one with him. Yeah, I did meet one-on-one with Jeff soon after the merger. In general, my conversations with Jeff are in a group setting. Amazon and Whole Foods have overlap in our philosophy. I believe a marriage is a good way to think about a large merger, and in a marriage there’s a me, a you, and an us. There’s a shared self. I think that’s true in a merger like this. Whole Foods, we have our own unique self, our own culture and purpose and values. Amazon has theirs, and then we have shared values in the stuff that we’re doing together. Amazon’s been quite respectful of Whole Foods Market’s culture. They have not tried to turn us into a clone of Amazon. I would say the merger has gone very well. Like in a marriage, there are some things that you fight about occasionally and things you don’t immediately agree on. In general, we sync up really well with Amazon, and it’s been a great partnership.

You and Jeff Bezos have separate bedrooms, would be the joke.

I didn’t say anything about that. Isaac, that’s your language. I want to be clear about that. That’s a thing I’ve said in the past, and it gets me in trouble, so I’ve learned to control my bedroom metaphors.

I will take full responsibility for that one. Tell me, when it comes to the idea of purpose, how does that manifest itself when you have a situation like the coronavirus pandemic, and taking care of workers and the importance of that?

I don’t think your purpose gets suspended. I think when you’re in more of a crisis mode, your purpose becomes even more important, and you have to lean into your purpose. Whole Foods’ higher purpose is to nourish people on the planet. I feel like that’s what we’ve done during COVID. From the very beginning, Whole Foods said, “O.K., we’ve got to keep our customers and our team members as safe as possible here, because we’re an essential business. People have to get food, and they’re going to eat at restaurants less. We’ve got to make our stores as safe as possible.” By the way, Amazon pushed us in this regard, so that we moved faster because Amazon wanted us to. We were one of the first to have all our team members wear masks, do temperature checks, start sterilizing all of our grocery carts, check stands, and other things customers are touching, after a customer uses them.

We’ve given an extra couple of weeks of sick time on top of what we already give if it’s COVID-related, or if there’s a quarantine. We increased overtime. We paid more money out initially for the first several months. We’ve paid bonuses. We’ve done everything we can to help our team members be happy. For the first several months, we allowed unlimited callouts. People could, if they had a child-care issue or they didn’t feel good or they didn’t want to come in for any reason, just call out, and that was O.K. It’s been very important to us, and we’ve also worked really hard to make sure our customers feel safe.

What did you feel like, especially in March and April, when a lot of Whole Foods employees spoke up and said that they felt like their conditions weren’t safe, and that Whole Foods wasn’t alerting people to the presence of coronavirus among employees, and so on?

I don’t think that was a lot of team members. I think that was a few team members. When it was appropriate, we engage with our team members and get their feedback, what they thought we should do.

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