Whole Foods CEO calls for new approach

For John Mackey, chief executive officer of Whole Foods, companies should focus not on boosting profits but on finding a deeper purpose.

Mackey, who delivered two public addresses Tuesday, argued that the most successful form of capitalism is what he called “conscious capitalism,” an attitude he said Whole Foods has attempted to espouse in its business dealings. Those seeking profits — like those seeking happiness — will find that both profits and happiness come only out of a larger search for purpose.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey argues that retailers should practice “conscious capitalism” when executing business plans.
Snigdha Sur
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey argues that retailers should practice “conscious capitalism” when executing business plans.

“I want us to evolve from the profit focus to the purpose focus, from the short term to the long term,” Mackey said.

Mackey’s first talk — delivered in front of a packed General Motors Room in Horchow Hall, along with two overflow TV rooms across the street — focused on the connection between profits and purpose, which he explained using the metaphor of happiness.

Mackey argued that those who single-mindedly pursue happiness tend to be narcissistic and self-involved, while those who pursue something about which they are passionate will wake up one day and find that they are happy.

“I’ve found that people who pursue happiness as a primary goal don’t achieve it,” Mackey said, “that in fact happiness is a by-product of other things, such as having a purpose, service to others, excellence, personal growth, friendship, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, love. And if we pursue those virtues, then one day we may grow up and find that we are very happy.”

And, he added, the pursuit of profits works in a similar way.

Whole Foods tries to embody this ideal of conscious capitalism, Mackey said, pointing to the company’s high standards for animal welfare, a microfinance program run by a segment of the company, the Whole Planet Foundation, and emphasis on the wellbeing of customers and employees.

Mackey said while he founded Whole Foods as a service to customers, the company’s mission seems to have evolved over time. In conversations with employees, he said, many have told him that they see Whole Foods as an agent to change and improve the world.

For Mackey, this disconnect between his initial vision for the company and the way others now see it is analogous to the evolving relationship between a parent and a child.

“Your parents have a vision for you, and for a while that influences you, and then you find our own way in life,” Mackey said. “Maybe that aligns with what your parents wanted, and maybe it doesn’t.”

The company aims to maintain a positive relationship with the environment, he said, describing Whole Foods as a “fictitious citizen” that must bear responsibility for actions that impact the wider community. Mackey said Whole Foods has “green mission” teams that consist of employees who make suggestions about how stores can be more environmentally sustainable.

But when confronted with some tough questions about Whole Foods’s policies, Mackey dodged the queries.

For example, when asked how he reconciles that his stores throw out their food products at the end of the day while there are starving people on the streets and soup kitchens that are empty, Mackey responded that Whole Foods does try to give canned food to food banks, but that the prepared food is not accepted.

The Hartford Courant reported Wednesday that Mackey said he anticipates a settlement soon on a Whole Foods merger with one of its formal rivals, Wild Oats Markets. The merger has been fought by federal regulators.

Ralph Klein, a visiting professor at the Yale Divinity School, called Mackey’s philosophy a “revolutionary approach to life.”

“Two things impressed me: one is the reform I need to do and the other is his business ethics and values,” Klein said.

Dan Pullman ’80 SOM ’87 added that not only was Mackey running a successful business, he also seemed to care about a range of significant social issues.

John Mackey has a blog on the Whole Foods Web site that keeps costumers and employees up-to-date on his ideas.

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