The missionary of retail: Interview with Whole Foods’ Walter Robb

walter_robb.jpgLate last year I sat down with Walter Robb, co-president of Whole Foods Market, for an obscure business magazine.

I pitched the editor, for whom I've freelanced since 2000, on a Whole Foods Q&A by trotting out a few of the 27-year-old company's impressive stats: $5.6 billion in fiscal 2006 sales, almost 200 locations, a stock price that's risen by an average of 21.8% every year since it went public in 1992. The selling point for the editor was that this kind of growth is more usually associated with the kind of rapacious company featured in The Corporation, not a "hippie co-op," as he kept calling it. (He's from New York.)

As you might guess, my true interest in the story lay elsewhere. While there are people who love to hate Whole Foods for various reasons, like its prices or its stance on unions, you can't argue that the company has transformed the organic food industry. Some might say for the worse — Whole Foods certainly took a bruising in that area from Michael Pollan in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

What I wanted was to learn whether the people running Whole Foods truly believe that a company can be big and yet not bad, or in the words of another Wall Street darling, "do no evil."

Robb in the 'hood

Having been avidly following the back-and-forth dialogue between Whole Foods' CEO and Pollan, I admit to being disappointed when John Mackey was unavailable. But Co-President Walter Robb was willing to talk, and he turned out to be every bit as personable and passionate.

Robb works in Emeryville, in a quite modest office within walking distance of where I live. Tall and lanky, he was wearing a button-down shirt and khakis, and brown leather clogs with socks. He was also tan from a five-week hiking/family vacation. Although the interview took place on his first day back, he didn't act at all rushed, and in fact went 30 minutes over my allotted hour. I can honestly say I've never interviewed an executive who impressed me more with the depth of his convictions.

The Whole story

What made it into the final version for Corporate Board Member's January/February 2007 issue was geared to business readers, not Ethicureans. (Caveat: registration required, and the editor's headline makes me wince.) I thought some readers might be interested in the entire Q&A, which goes a lot deeper into the state of the industry and Whole Foods' place in it. Here are a few choice Robb nuggets that I hope will entice you to wade through all 6,000 words:

This retailing comes from our soul. It comes from a desire to effect change in the world. Nothing less than that. … And it's been that way long before Michael Pollan started writing, and it will continue to be that way. If people are skeptical about it, well so be it.…

When you look at how most animals are being raised for eating in this country, we’ve got to support a greater awareness about that, and greater transparency, so we can change it. Because it’s horrible. You go to a chicken farm, or a pig farm, it’s just gross.…

Where is it written that unions are the only ways you can be a team-member-friendly company? Was that handed down by Moses or something? I missed that.

I've posted the full interview on my "real" website.

[Robb portrait by the Potato Non Grata — who's not just my favorite sidekick.]

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