In fact, growing up, the CEO of one of the most well-known health food grocers in the country — which started out as a vegetarian shop for Austin, Texas hippies — ate cocoa puffs for breakfast, a hamburger for lunch and boxed macaroni and cheese for dinner, Mackey said on NPR’s “How I Built This.”
But at 23 in 1978 the college dropout thought opening a natural grocery store with a girlfriend would be an adventure. In 1980, they two joined two others and opened a different store, and Whole Foods was born. Instantly it was a success.
“People were so excited about this first store,” Mackey said. “It was amazing, and we didn’t do any advertising. We just opened the doors. The whole Austin counter culture hippie community knew about it immediately.”
Flash forward nearly 40 years and the iconic brand is now part of Amazon, thanks to a $13.7 billion deal last year. Mackey told NPR that he finally relented and agreed to sell Whole Foods, as other grocers that got into the health food space after him were now starting to eclipse the Austin-based company, even though it continued to grow in many markets across the country.
“What makes business so amazing is, what makes capitalism so dynamic is that in fact, if you are successful, people copy you,” he said. “And that’s what has happened with Whole Foods. A lot of people have copied us. That helps keep your edge.”
A year later, Amazon has certainly left its imprint on Whole Foods, though the Seattle-based giant hasn’t explicitly reminded customers in the stores that it owns the place (at least not yet). Amazon Prime members get discounts, but Whole Foods leaves out the name “Amazon” on signs, and just writes “Prime deals, ” according to Business Insider.
However, people shopping via AmazonFresh now know it offers delivery services of certain Whole Foods products in certain U.S. markets, and Prime Now offers even more products in slightly more markets, Brit+Co. writes. Amazon is continuing to expand the number of markets that can receive these services and eventually they will be offered nationally. The company is also offering its Echo smart speaker in which individuals can use its Alexa personal assistant to command a variety of actions within the home, according to CNBC.
Still, the essential culture that makes Whole Foods quintessentially Whole Foods is still intact, writes Southeast Produce Weekly. For 18 consecutive years, Fortune magazine has included Whole Foods Market on its “100 Best Companies to Work For” list. The company was named “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store” by Health Magazine, the top retailer for seafood sustainability by Greenpeace and one of “America’s 25 Most Inspiring Companies” by Forbes. Fortune also ranked Whole Foods Market first in the food and drug store industry and No. 20 overall for the magazine’s “Most Admired Companies” list.
“Out of his respect for equity among Team Members, Mackey implemented a salary cap for all executives,” Southeast Produce Weekly writes. “He cut his own salary to $1 annually in 2006, and forgoes stock options and bonuses. He continues to work for Whole Foods Market out of a passion to see the business realize the potential for deeper purpose, for the joy of leading a great company, and to answer the call to service he feels in his heart.”
Indeed, Mackey told NPR that “here will be no one that ever loves Whole Foods Market as much as I love it.”
“But building a business is a little bit like having children and watching the children grow up … you hope your child is healthy, you hope your child is happy and you hope your child has integrity and does the right thing,” he said. “And I think it is important to have a good founder and entrepreneur but the great businesses continue to live on after the founder moves. I certainly hope Whole Foods is in that space.”
John Mackey, CEO and Cofounder, Whole Foods Market
Headquarters: Austin, TX
Education: University of Texas; Trinity University
Cofounded company: 1980