Whole Foods, Healthcare, And The “S-Word”

Partly because it’s in my building, but also because I like and admire the company, I feel bad when Whole Foods is attacked. I’m referring to CEO John Mackey’s Wall Street Journal editorial that has many customers threatening to hang up their reusable shopping bags for good. The piece, which essentially argued for fiscal restraint and individual empowerment, has generated a firestorm among progressives.

So, let’s break it down. Many in PR have said that CEOs have no business taking on controversial issues. I strongly disagree. For a chief executive to take a stand on a matter of national importance, even a contentious one, can be a powerful differentiator and a strong expression of corporate and personal values. I admired Howard Schultz for advocating for healthcare reform several years ago. Schultz’s position dovetailed with a key aspect of the Starbucks workplace culture; it offers healthcare benefits to part-time employees. My rule for this kind of advocacy is to be general in public, specific (or partisan) in private.

Still, there was nothing wrong with the thrust of Mackey’s piece, which contained reasonable suggestions like tort reform and tax benefits for private health insurance, along with a call for a healthier lifestyle.  Mackey’s reputed to be a libertarian, and several of his ideas seem consistent with that philosophy, but that’s beside the point. Here’s where he veered off the path.  His article led with a quote, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”  The original author of the quote? Margaret Thatcher.

That’s right. The Iron Lady and the “S-word.” It doesn’t take a PR genius to see how likening the current reform proposal to “socialism” might strike a sour note among the Whole Foods crowd. It’s kind of like invoking Bill Clinton at a right-to-life meeting…confusing at best, offensive at worst.

Since the food fight erupted, Mackey has stated that his views are personal and don’t reflect the values of the corporation. He also protested that the paper’s editorial staff had added the subhead, which refers to Obamacare.  (This is true, but irrelevant.)  What is relevant – and regrettable – is that that Mackey showed a surprising lack of sensitivity to the values of his core customers. He should apologize for politicizing the debate with the reference to socialism and focus more on his company’s own commitment to employee healthcare – which makes his argument for individual empowerment very nicely.

For me, the whole thing leaves a bad taste, because the backlash will have a chilling effect on other corporate officers who want to express a well-reasoned point of view about a critical national issue. In my view, we actually need more CEOs like John Mackey to participate in the public dialogue. It’s also regrettable that one of his major arguments – that diet and lifestyle can address the root causes of poor health – seems to have gotten lost in the (organic) sauce. Now, there’s a credible position. Who better to make the case for individual commitment to better health than the CEO of a company that helps people make better food choices?

In late 2007, Mackey, a very wealthy man, announced he would forego further cash compensation, saying he no longer wants to work for money, and citing a call to service. That’s admirable. So is his passion for the brand he built after so many years. But, as CEO, he still personifies that brand, and he would do well to remember where his (whole grain) bread is buttered.