Optimistic Picture of Whole Foods

After listening to Walter Robb, President of Whole Foods this morning at the Portland Business Journal Breakfast, I feel if any grocery retailer has got the right people, leadership, vision and determination to strike the balance of good business and making a difference in tackling nutrition, food and health issues AND be successful – this company does!  

I’m not a dedicated foodie but since Whole Foods moved into the Hollywood neighborhood this year I’ve taken a fancy to shopping at the store because I can walk there and it serves most of my needs in one location <I won’t go on about how I’ve always been baffled by the fact that no single store really ‘gets’ my grocery needs but this one comes close. I digress…>. I like Whole Foods because the food is fresh, healthy (AND still tastes good), displays are educational, I like their 365 brand, esp. the seasoned croutons J and the vibe in the store isn’t as stuffy and expensive as it used to be. The premium for healthy food feels affordable and shopping experience is fun!

So you may be wondering what did Walter say at the breakfast, to convince me that Whole Foods has the chemistry for success?

  • WholeFoods’ Leadership Understands Its Success Hinges on Tackling Issues: When Walter was asked whether price is the biggest pain point for customers in purchasing organic and healthy food, he said yes, BUT closely behind, he stated that people don’t know how to cook! Secondly, if Walter talked about Healthcare once during the Q&A, he mentioned the topic a dozen times because the company believes that the Food Supply Chain and Nutrition is one of the root causes of the Healthcare debate that the Obama administration is currently tackling. Whether talking about industrial agriculture, subsidies, lack of cooking skills and education, it is evident that Whole Foods is built on an understanding of the issues and industries that surrounds its business.

p.s. Whole Foods position on healthcare is not news, especially for readers familiar with the op-ed Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare written by John Mackey in the Wall Street Journal last August which inspired a firestorm of debate, as well as calls for boycotts and a Facebook page dedicated to the boycott.

  • Whole Foods Understands Its Competition and Importance of Collaboration: Robb spoke about the tenet of actively engaging and “behaving responsibly to all stakeholders” – this was very evident throughout the session. In acknowledging that healthy food is a lifestyle movement and matter of education and awareness, Robb credited some competitors such as Market Choice  for “good retailing”. He mentioned how powerful and influential Walmart is to the food industry. He stated how “Walmart makes a move and the industry needle moves” and underscored this by saying that in the future $1 in every $4 spent on food will be spent at Walmart. He didn’t talk about his relationship with Walmart however he led me to believe that they’re not a traditional competitor. Another example: a naturopathic physician from the School of Oriental Medicine in the audience publicly asked Robb about Whole Foods’ partnership with her profession to supply nutritional supplements and educate citizens. In front of the 300-person audience; a potential partnership blossomed when Robb agreed to a meeting between her and Regional President Bob Silverman, after the session.


  • Ambition, Dedication and Unconventional Thinking: Robb talked about the only strategy in business is to evolve faster than competitors. This implies risk and thinking differently. He shared examples of how this translates into their business and operations. For example, Whole Foods hosts farmers markets in their parking lots,  when speaking about equality and fairness for employees, he stated that the management board has decided that no executive at Whole Foods will ever earn more than 19 times the salary of an average employee and this is calculated annually. Lastly, he spoke about the power of culture, (referred to as “the Petri dish where the business unfolds”) as a key component of the company and the value of tapping into employees’ creativity. The topic is clearly dear to him, he will be publishing a book on the topic soon.

And if you’re curious, the picture Robb painted was not all rosy. As with any company it is clear that they have made mistakes and business is not all plain sailing. For example, Walter spoke about the challenge they faced in 1997 when they strayed too far away from their values and became expensive and niche.

Plenty of food for thought.


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