John Mackey Steps Down As Chairman of Whole Foods: Did He Jump or Was He Pushed?


Whole Foods via Fast Company

On Christmas Eve, John Mackey announced that he is stepping down as Chairman of the Board of Whole Foods.

Last summer Mackey "stoked the ire of progressives everywhere by publishing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that railed against proposed health care reform" and suggested that eating healthy food was a viable alternative to "Obamacare." There were calls from the left for resignations and boycotts. Those who liked what Mackey said in the WSJ started "buy-cotts"; grabbing all the organic arugula they could find.

Now they are outraged at his resignation; You would think, reading the comments on John Mackey's blog, that it is greatest left-wing victory since Franklin Roosevelt won the presidency. They are back to boycotts, even though Mackey is still running the joint.

So did he jump, was he pushed, and does it matter?

Was Mackey Forced out by Activists?

Mackey completely denies this and wrote in the comments on his blog:

Did the decision to give up the Chairman's title have anything to do with the op-ed article last summer in the Wall Street Journal? It isn't connected in the slightest way. Contrary to many people's beliefs I'm not being "punished" for writing the op-ed piece.

Mackey claims that he is giving up the Chairman's role in part because he is tired of fighting shareholder activists in proxy wars at every annual meeting; union activists have been fighting him for years over his anti-union stance, long before his position on health care became so controversial.

It's not like his board is composed of wimps who would collapse under pressure; Mackey put the board in a pretty uncomfortable position in 2007 when he was caught making sock puppet comments on a Yahoo financial website; that directly impacted the company and got the attention of the Feds. And the board stood behind him then.

Should activists care at this point? Do Mackey's views on the health care issue disqualify him from running a company like Whole Foods?

Perhaps we should listen to Michael Pollan's response to this:

So Mackey is wrong on health care, but Whole Foods is often right about food, and their support for the farmers matters more to me than the political views of their founder. I haven't examined the political views of all the retailers who feed me, but I can imagine having a lot of eating problems if I make them a litmus test.

We go to Whole Foods because we like the choices they have made about the stuff they sell. Some people think Mackey is a hypocrite because he is a vegan who sells meat, but as he pointed out in a great New Yorker profile by Nick Paumgarten, it's a business.

"We're trying to do good. And we're trying to make money. The more money we make, the more good we can do." By this, he had in mind not the traditional philanthropic argument that more money earned equals more to give away but, rather, that a good company--that is, his company--which sells good things and treats its employees, shareholders, customers, and suppliers well, can spread goodness simply by thriving.

I have no doubt that with John Mackey as CEO he will continue doing pretty much the same thing, extremists on both sides notwithstanding.

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