New book by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a self-help manual for corporate giants | Food Feature | Indy Week

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New book by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey is a self-help manual for corporate giants

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He declared that climate change is "not a big deal." He called President Barack Obama's health care plan "fascist," although he later apologized for his comment.

In the media, John Mackey, co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, can seem like a rabble-rouser. Yet, his new book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, co-written with Raj Sisodia, a professor of marketing and cofounder of Conscious Capitalism Inc., reads as if penned by a man at peace with achieving a collective and individual higher purpose—one that embraces high profits.

Headquartered in Austin, Texas, Whole Foods has 10 stores in North Carolina and a total of 340 stores in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom. (By contrast, Trader Joe's has 344 stores in the U.S.)

Conscious Capitalism reads like a self-help manual for corporate giants. In it, Mackey defends the "virtues" of capitalism, lauding it as a solution to solving the world's problems: "Much of today's animosity toward capitalism stems from a misconception that we need to share all resources fairly and equitably," he writes. "But the reality is that by artfully combining resources, labor, and innovation, wealth can be greatly expanded. The poor can become wealthier without requiring the well off to become poorer. The pie grows, and there is more for everyone. This idea is at the core of capitalism's extraordinary and unique ability to generate wealth."

(As if to demonstrate this ability, Mackey's canary-yellow book is strategically perched on the end caps near Whole Foods' cash registers.)

Mackey seems to be his own personal hero. In the introduction, he describes his various "awakenings" as a yoga enthusiast and vegan (which he still is) and as a small grocer who failed financially but grew in his sense of community.

"I learned that [...] business isn't based on exploitation or coercion at all," he writes. "Instead, I discovered that business is based on cooperation and voluntary exchange."

While Mackey can theorize about his higher purpose and values as a CEO, one wonders how his ideas match his practice. As fluid as Mackey is with his comments—and proclamations of freedom of speech—his employees seem more tethered.

INDY Week contacted several local Whole Foods employees for interviews. One employee said he wanted to speak, but his team leader did not permit it. Only one worker agreed to be interviewed, but on the condition that the name not be used.

"It is a corporation," says the employee, who works in the Durham store, "but the cool thing about Whole Foods as a corporation is that they do give freedom to the individual stores. I'm interested as a person in nutrition and talking about what they eat. Those little interactions that you have with people at the grocery store carry so much weight in life. If you can get a little kid excited about their orange, that's really cool. I go into the store with that in my mind's eye. You can give as much as you want when you're there. And I think that's pretty awesome."

In Chapter 6, "Passionate, Inspired Team Members," Mackey lays out the "joy of work." Here, he defines conscious business as an entity that creates "purposeful work environments that challenge and encourage their team members to learn and grow."

The Durham employee says this is evident at work.

"It really is a democratic process. At any level, it's an open door when it comes to expressing an idea or suggesting we go about things a different way."

Bonny Moellenbrock, executive director of local nonprofit SJF Institute, says Mackey's "conscious" philosophy is common in the discussion of conscious business practices. "It is perhaps related in a new way, but it's not revolutionary. It's couched with free market capitalism."

SJF Institute matches small-business entrepreneurs with investors looking to put their money toward an ethical business practice. Local business venture LoMo Market, a travelling farmers market, just signed on as a client.

"We're working with private companies, so you think of Mackey way back when," says Moellenbrock. "They are for-profit, and they're what we call early stage. But they do want to grow and have a larger impact. To do this kind of investment, we're looking at companies that could be a Whole Foods. We want to find better capital to flow into companies to make these economies more sustainable."

Moellenbrock, who has never worked with Mackey and had read only the book's introduction, says capitalism can be a force for good. "Our economy needs to be one that is sustainable for the people and the environment now and in the future. [Capitalism] very much can be that and it's very powerful, and, as we've seen, too often not for good."


Mackey's musings

Originally Mackey said he was too busy for an interview. Shortly before deadline, Mackey agreed to an email interview with Victoria Bouloubasis.

INDY WEEK: What is the purpose of the book tour?

JOHN MACKEY: Free enterprise capitalism has been the most powerful creative system of social cooperation and human progress ever, but its perception and its role in our society have been distorted. With this book, my co-author Raj Sisodia and I are boldly defending the good of business and free market capitalism by presenting a way of thinking about the higher purpose of a business, its relationships with interconnected stakeholders and the impact it has on the world. We are spreading the word about the good of business at a time when it is under great scrutiny. We want to reveal the truth, goodness and heroism of capitalism rather than perpetuate the false stigmas it has had, such as being all about greedy profit maximization.

What can a Whole Foods customer gain from the book and the idea of conscious capitalism?

The book is our contribution to the discussion around where business and capitalism can go. Capitalism is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had, but we can aspire to even do more. We have many customers who are business people who work at small, medium and large businesses. We want to share the idea that as we become more conscious, businesses can help to positively evolve our world. We can impact it in such a way that billions of people can flourish and can live prosperous lives full of purpose, creativity and love.

On page 98 in the book, conscious businesses are lauded as ways to "create purposeful work environments that challenge and encourage their team members to learn and grow." Can you provide a specific example of this in one of your stores?

We have the "team wins, everyone on the team wins" philosophy at Whole Foods Market, and we strive to create environments that are conducive to empowerment, creativity and collaboration. A business is conscious when it successfully organizes itself around intrinsic motivators, including purpose and love, to create a place to work that allows its team members to thrive as self-actualizing human beings. We do this by creating an egalitarian workplace. Some examples to help realize this include:

  • Everyone gets the same benefits regardless of position, from cashiers all the way to the co-CEOs of the company.

  • We have transparency on compensation.

  • We have a unique way of rewarding teams' productivity with a protocol we call gain-sharing. When a team's labor productivity is increased, everyone on the team shares in the bonuses, which are paid in proportion to the individual's hours worked. We have found that this reinforces solidarity within the teams as it aligns the interests of everyone on the team.

  • Teams actually vote new team members on the team after they have worked for several weeks. This helps promote creativity and ensure productivity among teams.

There are plenty of opportunities to learn and grow, as new jobs are always coming up within the same store and also at new stores as we grow our company. Hiring from within is the usual practice, and team leaders encourage team members to apply for positions to advance their careers. We have hundreds of examples of team members who started out in entry level jobs and are now in leadership positions, going from earning around $10 an hour initially to now making six figures in a leadership job.

Creativity, freedom and heroism are all themes of the book and its philosophy. How would you respond to critics who feel as though creativity and freedom are limited and restricted by companies? Additionally, who are the heroes?

The one thing that we have an unlimited supply of as humans beings is creativity. With this in mind, we can change the ways that many businesses operate to unleash the heroic spirit of business by letting creativity and innovation flow! It is time to change the business narrative and adopt the principles of conscious capitalism for this very reason. Businesses are the true heroes as they are the true value creators. Why is business the hero? Business is good because it creates value; it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange; it is noble because it can elevate our existence; and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. We must revolutionize capitalism and show that businesses are the greatest value creators in the world, with the power to elevate humanity upward through continuous improvement.

Does Whole Foods provide a public list of its investors?

We are a publicly traded company. Here is our annual report.

What is your and/or Whole Foods' view of labor unions? The book classifies them as "an interesting category of stakeholders." Are Whole Foods employees allowed and/or encouraged to be a part of a union?

It's important to understand that companies don't "allow" or "not allow" employees to be part of a union. It is their legal right to decide if they want third-party representation or not. We don't have labor unions at Whole Foods Market because our team members have not chosen third-party representation. We have great benefits, very competitive pay, empowerment in a variety of ways, and have thousands of opportunities for promotion and growth.

Are employees themselves considered stakeholders by the book's definition of conscious capitalism? If so, please explain how.

Of course! At Whole Foods Market, our key stakeholders are customers, team members, supplier partners, investors, communities and the larger environment. We strive to create win-wins for all stakeholders. In our book, we challenge the mindset that stakeholder interests are inherently opposed to one another. When businesses operate with purpose beyond profits and create value for all stakeholders, tradeoffs are largely eliminated, performance is elevated and the entire business system thrives. We work hard to make sure our team members are getting the very best benefits with additional gratis programs for health and wellness, the best working conditions and competitive compensation. We are proud our team members have named us to FORTUNE's list of Best Places to Work in America for 16 consecutive years.


Correction: Feb. 25 is Monday (not Sunday, as shown in print).

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stream of consciousness."

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