Business

Whole Foods' John Mackey: Business is 'fundamentally heroic'

Media IndustryRestaurant and Catering IndustryFinanceBusinessBusinessWhole Foods MarketHealth Care Reform (2009)

Business, says Whole Foods co-Chief Executive John Mackey, has “a horrible reputation.”

But instead of being “selfish and greedy and exploitative,” as it’s often portrayed, business is actually “the greatest force for good on this planet,” he said at a Westside gathering Thursday night.

“I’m an unabashed, complete free-enterprise capitalist enthusiast,” he said. “I see business as fundamentally heroic … [but] it could be so much better.”

Mackey is about a quarter of the way through a tour to promote his first book “Conscious Capitalism,” which he co-wrote with Raj Sisodia. In the tome and again on Thursday, Mackey argued that while businesses can’t exist without being profitable, companies have a higher purpose beyond just making money.

Enterprise should take after businesses such as Google, Nordstrom, Southwest and Patagonia, he said – creating societal value beyond the monetary and, in the process, generating a stronger sense of fulfillment that often brings better financials.

“It’s not inspiring to most people to just try to maximize profits and shareholder value,” Mackey said.

The event was hosted by Jonathan D. Sokoloff, a managing partner at Los Angeles private equity firm Leonard Green & Partners and a board member at Whole Foods as well as retail giants such as the Container Store, J. Crew Group Inc. and Jo-Ann stores Inc.

At Sokoloff’s sprawling, hedge-shielded home in the swanky Holmby Hills neighborhood, guests – including Peter Ueberroth of L.A. Olympics fame and Forever 21 President Alex Ok – mingled. At the buffet: oregano cumin heirloom beans, quinoa walnut and currant-stuffed chile relleno, rioja braised short ribs and more.

Mackey, clad in a checked shirt and dark jeans, chatted about an upcoming trip to the Appalachian Trail (he’s hiked it twice), his affinity as a vegan for Cafe Gratitude and the strain of touring.

As a 25-year-old college dropout in 1978, Mackey co-founded what would eventually become Whole Foods with a girlfriend in Austin, Texas, where the company is still based. The business now has 342 stores and 73,000 workers and in the last fiscal year raked in $11.7 billion in revenue.

On Thursday, guests eventually gathered on couches and fold-out chairs to listen to the soft-spoken Mackey and his co-presenter, financier Michael Milken.

The talk veered across a range of ideas: The pressure of increasing government regulations on economic freedom, the role of entrepreneurial creativity in improving lives, company culture, even the need for a “different kind of leader.”

“It’s not about their own power and lording over others,” he said.

Mackey touched on a slew of other topics as well.

To shoppers who refer to Whole Foods instead as “Whole Paycheck,” Mackey said that “healthy foods are not expensive at all.”

“It’s fundamentally a myth,” he said, saying that whole grains, beans, in-season fruits and vegetables and other good-for-you products are always affordable. The key, he said, is to “shop intelligently.”

On executive compensation, he said that Whole Foods implements a salary cap of 19 times the company’s average pay, turning off the spigot after about $800,000.

Mackey even addressed tech giant Apple – he’s fascinated with it. Microsoft, though, he thinks is “treading water.”

“It doesn’t seem to have that same urge to move forward,” he said.

Same goes for his own generation. Mackey, 59, said he’s “given up” on entrepreneurs his own age because they’re “ideologically locked.” Instead, he’s targeting his book toward Millennials between ages 16 and 34.

He’s also not a fan of the mainstream media – “my favorite people,” he joked at one point.

In recent weeks, Mackey has faced flak for several public comments. Earlier this month, he said that using “fascism” to describe President Obama’s healthcare reform in an NPR interview was a “poor use of an emotionally charged word.” He’s also raised eyebrows by telling Mother Jones that “climate change is clearly occurring” and “is perfectly natural and not necessarily bad.”

Now, he said, he’s reevaluating the media strategy for the rest of his tour.

“I’m not sure I want to continue to go be misinterpreted,” he said.

But the point he stressed again and again: Business isn’t all evil.

Mackey blamed “the Enrons, the Bernie Madoffs, the Worldcomms” for destroying the financial sector’s reputation.

“Business is the only institution in our society that’s judged by its worst practitioners … the gangsters, the crooks, the thieves, the most disreputable,” he said.

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