John Mackey used the choice words when asked about selling the organic grocery chain.
Imagine spending three decades building the company of your dreams only to have a group of investors snatch up about 9 percent of it under your nose and then tell you to sell your life’s work to the highest bidder just so they can get a nice return on their investment. You might consider those people to be “greedy bastards,” wouldn’t you? So even though Whole Foods CEO John Mackey may not have followed proper business etiquette when using the phrase to describe some of the grocery chain’s shareholders, at least you know where he’s coming from.
John Mackey isn’t just some grocery market industry veteran dropped into the position of CEO; he has been with Whole Foods literally since the day the first store opened its doors in 1980. As one of the company’s founders, he’s seen it all, building a single store in Austin into an $11 billion business. But recently what he’s been seeing isn’t pretty, at least according to Wall Street, as the brand stock dipped by half after hitting an all-time high back in 2013. Potentially seeing an old-fashioned “buy low” situation, hedge fund Jana Partners swooped in and grabbed up about 9 percent of Whole Foods stock earlier this year, making them the company’s second largest shareholder. Then, as Jana is known to do, the investor group started to throw their weight around.
At its core, and certainly more so than most grocery stores, Whole Foods is built on certain principles and ideals. So it’s certainly not surprising that Mackey wasn’t happy when the new investors began telling him how to run the brand he’s spent his life creating. But what is a bit surprising is how little he chose to temper his words when discussing investors’ interest in selling Whole Foods with Texas Monthly. “Yes, we need to evolve,” he told the magazine. “We need to get better, and we’re doing that. But these guys just want to sell us, because they think they can make forty or fifty percent in a short period of time. They’re greedy bastards, and they’re putting a bunch of propaganda out there, trying to destroy my reputation and the reputation of Whole Foods, because it’s in their self-interest to do so.”
Bastards or not, Mackey does touch on a good point: so much of business today is about immediate results, often times at the expense of a grander vision. But at the same time, Whole Foods is a public company, and if you’re listed on a stock exchange, the “greedy bastards” are free to come for you.
For now, this battle isn’t over. In fact, the drama may just be ratcheting up. “That’s my baby,” Mackey said of Whole Foods in the same article. “I’m going to protect my kid, and they’ve got to knock Daddy out if they want to take it over.” Time to sit back, grab some Whole Foods Organic Popcorn and watch this play out.