Editor’s note: John Mackey, cofounder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, experienced a food consciousness awakening at the age of 23 when he moved into a vegetarian co-op. After taking on the role of buyer for the co-op, he discovered what he says is his true passion and purpose: helping people lead healthy lives. In 1978, Mackey opened his first natural foods store, SaferWay, in a Victorian house in Austin, Texas. The facility housed a vegetarian store on the first floor, a vegetarian café on the second, and office and living space on the third. Within two years, Mackey’s team raised enough money to open the first Whole Foods Market store in Austin, Texas. Since then, Mackey has grown Whole Foods Market into a $15 billion business with 465 retail stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Mackey also supports the health of businesses and the professional health of leaders through his ideologies of conscious capitalism and conscious leadership. Mackey cofounded the Conscious Capitalism movement and, in 2013, coauthored “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.” Mackey will be a general session speaker at APICS 2017, which will take place October 15-17 in San Antonio. APICS magazine Associate Editor Jennifer Storelli had the opportunity to speak with him about his mission and aspirations for Whole Foods Market, the business practices behind conscious capitalism, and how professionals can become conscious leaders.
Storelli: When you opened your first Whole Foods Market store in 1980, your business idea was something new for the time. How was this proposition received back then, and what specific methodologies enabled you to grow it into the leading natural and organic retailer of today?
Mackey: Yes, even selling tofu was a radical idea for the time. I remember one investor told us, “You’re just a bunch of hippies selling food to other hippies.” When we opened the first Whole Foods Market store, it was an immediate success, and we quickly became the largest natural foods store in the United States. We had learned a lot from our first venture into the supermarket business, SaferWay. We managed our costs better, had less spoilage and learned the very basics of retail that we didn’t really utilize in our first store. We wanted to create a real natural foods grocery store where you could do all of your shopping, which was something you couldn’t find at the time. We went public in 1992 and began acquiring other food retailers, like Bread & Circus, that could help us grow our business.
Storelli: Whole Foods Market is known for fostering a sort of conscious consumerism in terms of making healthy choices to promote healthy lives, but you also foster the idea of conscious capitalism for businesses. What does that entail?
Mackey: Becoming an entrepreneur and starting a business completely changed my life. There’s this narrative that businesses are evil; they only care about money. Almost everything I had believed about business was proven to be wrong. The most important thing I learned in my first year of running a business was that business isn’t based on exploitation or coercion at all. Instead, I discovered that business is based on cooperation and voluntary exchange. People trade voluntarily for mutual gain. No one is forced to trade with a business. Customers have competitive alternatives in the marketplace, team members have competitive alternatives for their labor, and suppliers have plenty of alternative customers for their products and services.
Storelli: In your book, you explain that conscious capitalism is a way of thinking about business that shows awareness of a given company’s higher purpose. How can companies find their higher purposes in order to practice conscious capitalism?
Mackey: There is no right purpose for every business; there are as many potential purposes as there are enterprises or organizations. I believe the best companies have great purposes. These great purposes are usually discovered or created by the founders and endure at the core of their business philosophies. Great purposes are transcendent, energizing and inspiring for all interdependent stakeholders. Purpose usually exists when a company is first created. The entrepreneurs who make the company may not always make it explicit, but there generally is a tacit purpose that animates the entrepreneur. As a company grows, the founding entrepreneurs sometimes make the purpose explicit and articulate the company’s core values. That is part of becoming a more conscious business — a business that gradually becomes more aware of its reason for being.
Storelli: What is Whole Foods Market’s higher purpose, and how do you embody it within the company?
Mackey: We want to improve the health and well-being of everyone on the planet through higher-quality foods and better nutrition. We start by practicing this within our own company by offering our team members an additional incremental discount — beyond the standard discount that all team members receive — based on their yearly health screenings, which check cholesterol, body mass index and blood pressure levels as well as nicotine use. We also offer health immersions to our most at-risk team members. We pay for them to go through a week-long immersion health training at which they are served the healthiest foods in the world. The results that we’ve seen from those immersions are incredible: People have really, positively changed the course of their lives by taking control of their health and changing their diets. We’ve sent more than 4,000 team members to these types of health immersions, and we continue to do so multiple times a year.
Storelli: Whole Foods Market has a reputation for selling high-quality but high-priced items. How do you convince consumers that these prices justify the health benefits they receive? And how can you put healthy foods within the financial reach of individuals in the lower economic classes?
Mackey: It’s not just about the health benefits of the products; it’s about the welfare of the person growing the product and paying them a living wage. We want to provide for our team members. We want to add value for all of our stakeholders, whether that’s offering our customers the highest-quality products or committing to long-term programs with fair trade suppliers. We’ve opened four stores in major cities in the United States — Chicago; Detroit; Newark, New Jersey; and New Orleans — that needed more access to fresh, healthy food. We created the Whole Cities Foundation to help create strong community partnerships in those areas. The Whole Cities Foundation also offers community-first grants to help broaden access to fresh, healthy food options in neighborhoods across the United States that previously only had a few food options. We also have the Whole Kids Foundation, which helps bring salad bars and gardens to schools across the country. Since its inception, the Whole Kids Foundation has invested more than $25 million into its programs to fund more than 5,000 salad bars and 4,200 school gardens, giving more than 5.2 million children access to healthier food. In addition, the Whole Kids Foundation Healthy Teachers Program has reached more than 14,000 teachers and food service staff through a healthy staff education program and developed elementary school garden and pollinator curricula, which are available to all schools for free.
Click to view an infographic about Whole Foods Market's stores and sales and the Whole Kids Foundation's philanthropic efforts.
Storelli: Going back to your first point in the last question, how does conscious capitalism tie in to relationships with suppliers?
Mackey: As conscious businesses change the parameters of their relationships with suppliers, these changes can have a ripple effect throughout the supply chain. Companies should encourage their suppliers to adopt similar approaches in their relationships with their own suppliers. Similarly, suppliers who start seeing the benefits of a win-win relationship with a conscious customer should take this philosophy to their other customers and educate them. In this manner, a conscious, collaborative approach to customer-supplier relationships can spread widely to benefit all companies affected — as well as their stakeholders.
Storelli: Also in your book, you note that a key part of conscious capitalism is a different kind of leader — a conscious leader. How would you describe a conscious leader, and why is this leadership style important?
Mackey: Conscious leaders display many of the qualities that we admire most in human beings — they find joy in their work and their opportunities to serve, lead and help shape a better future. They are authentic individuals who are eager to share their passions with others and are recharged and energized by their work. Conscious leaders commonly have high analytical, emotional, spiritual and systems intelligence. These types of leaders have much in common with each other but much more that is unique to each individual. They are keenly self-aware and recognize their own deepest motivations and convictions. Conscious leaders are important because they make a positive difference, embed a shared purpose, help people grow and evolve, and make tough moral choices.
Storelli: How can professionals become conscious leaders?
Mackey: You have to aspire to be one. Without high intentionality, it just doesn’t happen. Personal growth is rarely an easy thing; it takes great effort and usually involves some pain as we make mistakes and learn from them. Your personal growth as a leader will also help enable your business to evolve. When you follow your heart and find your higher purpose, you feel more alive because you are tapped into your true passions. I try to set a high standard for myself, but I also believe you shouldn’t beat yourself up or overindulge yourself. People do their best when they are aligned with their higher purposes in life.
Jennifer Storelli is associate editor for APICS magazine. She may be contacted at email@example.com.
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Whole Foods CEO On Healthy Business Leadership | APICS