Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whole Fools Market

John Mackey, CEO of Austin-based Whole Foods Market created a stir back in 2007 when it was revealed that he had been posting to a Yahoo financial forum under a pseudonym, promoting the financial strengths of his stores during a takeover of rival Wild Oats. That was pretty stupid and it called into question his sanity ethics, not to mention his maturity.

Wackey Mackey had gone and done it again, this time under his real name in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal concerning health care reform.

It's not so much what he said that has me pissed off as it is the fact the he went out of his way to write an article about the direction he believes we need to go for health care reform. Had this piece been written by the CEO of Walgreens, Citigroup, or John Deere, I would not have cared in the least, nor would it have been the least bit surprising. If I had a Citigroup bank account or credit card, I would not be rushing out to close the account. I wouldn't cease shopping at Walgreens (although I shop there less than once a year on average anyway) and I wouldn't suddenly be trying to sell my John Deere to buy a Cub Cadet. (I have plenty of other reasons for the latter, however.)

John Mackey is the CEO of a supermarket chain which began here in Austin by appealing to the local back-to-nature hippies and others who sought organic and natural foods. Obviously this remains their targeted customer -- people who are likely to be quite left-of-center politically, and have quite a knowledge about the health consequences of processed foods and unhealthy ingredients. We tend to read labels and avoid those items which don't meet our own personal dietary standards and preferences. I say "we" because I have been a Whole Foods shopper, off and on, for over 12 years. In 2007, I worked directly across 6th Street from the flagship store and headquarters. Believe it or not, the store is a big tourist attraction.

For him to write an opinion piece of this nature is not unlike the remorse I'd feel after working hard to elect a member of the Green Party to Congress, only to have that person start voting in lock-step with Republicans. Wacky Mackey has apparently forgotten the proclivities of vast numbers of his clientele. In addition, I could argue he may have forgotten his own humble and struggling start in business.
In 1978, twenty-five-year-old college dropout John Mackey and Rene Lawson, his twenty-one year old girlfriend, borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open a small natural foods store called SaferWay in Austin, Texas (the name being a spoof of Safeway). When the couple was evicted from their apartment for storing food products in it, they decided to live at the store. Because it was zoned for commercial use, there was no shower stall, so they bathed using a water hose attached to their dishwasher.

Two years later, John Mackey partnered with Craig Weller and Mark Skiles to merge SaferWay with their Clarksville Natural Grocery, resulting in the opening of the original Whole Foods Market on September 20, 1980. At 12,500 square feet (1,160 m2) and with a staff of 19, the store was quite large in comparison to the standard health food store of the time.

Less than a year later, on Memorial Day in 1981, the worst flood in 70 years devastated the city of Austin. Caught in the flood waters, the store’s inventory was wiped out and most of the equipment was damaged. The losses were approximately $400,000 and Whole Foods Market had no insurance. Customers and neighbors voluntarily joined the staff to repair and clean up the damage. Creditors, vendors and investors all assisted in helping the store recover, and it reopened 28 days after the flood.

Or perhaps he believes, as a result of that experience, that everyone else in the country with inadequate or no insurance can get the voluntary helping hand from friends and neighbors. Who knows. But based on one idea he promotes in his opinion piece, it sure sounds like that is his belief.
Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren't covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

So, that's like a voluntary taxation for providing health coverage. Can we do the same with our military budget? I would like to opt out on a few things there, buddy.

Hopefully a lot of CEOs just like him would be compassionate enough to exercise some stock options and maybe voluntarily donate $100,000 or more to a worthy cause. And yeah, these people who financially need no help would get yet another tax write-off while those struggling with every penny earned would be praying for compassion and hoping for the best.

Blow that out your ass, Mackey, along with your embedded advertisement to encourage more folks to shop for natural and organic products (where? Oh, Whole Foods of course!) and a blatant promotion of how great the benefits are to his workers.
At Whole Foods we allow our team members to vote on what benefits they most want the company to fund. Our Canadian and British employees express their benefit preferences very clearly—they want supplemental health-care dollars that they can control and spend themselves without permission from their governments. Why would they want such additional health-care benefit dollars if they already have an "intrinsic right to health care"? The answer is clear—no such right truly exists in either Canada or the U.K.—or in any other country.

Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.

Unfortunately many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.

Recent scientific and medical evidence shows that a diet consisting of foods that are plant-based, nutrient dense and low-fat will help prevent and often reverse most degenerative diseases that kill us and are expensive to treat. We should be able to live largely disease-free lives until we are well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age.

Many of our health care problems are not self-inflicted. Ever heard of automobile accidents? Ever heard of pedestrians or cyclists being slammed by a vehicle? Ever seen a hospital bill for weeks of intensive care?

Eating healthy and natural foods is a great thing and I highly encourage it. After 18 years of a vegetarian diet, txrad and I really haven't had any significant illnesses during this time, other than an occasional allergy due to local pollen, and that was several years ago.

But in March of 2007, txrad did have an accident resulting in a concussion. He spent two days in a hospital for observation mainly. They did brain scans and x-rays, and determined that he also had some fractured ribs, but there was nothing they could really do. It required rest and weeks of recovery at home to heal.

He was unemployed at the time -- had been for over three months. And despite the fact that he was still covered by insurance (incidentally from the advertising agency directly across the street from Whole Foods in downtown Austin), he still has about $3,000 in unpaid medical bills which were not covered by his insurance. He is also still unemployed. He is nagged daily by calls from collections attempting to get their hands on the funds. And his previously decent credit rating has probably been reduced to nothing.

Nice system we have here. And thanks, Mackey, for being so understanding.
We are all responsible for our own lives and our own health. We should take that responsibility very seriously and use our freedom to make wise lifestyle choices that will protect our health.

Gee, maybe if we had made the "lifestyle choice" to take the money we spent at Whole Foods Market through the years and instead, invested it in an interest-bearing account -- all $10,661.28 -- txrad's bills would be paid and we'd still have a nice health cushion. How stupid of us to have not thought of that option. (Yes, I do have a screen shot of a Quicken report I just pulled to back up my figure.)

There is already a "Boycott Whole Foods Market" group on Facebook. At the time I'm writing this, it already has 7,702 members. I'm one of them. A lot of people are pissed off about this. And that should start to worry the stockholders if this impacts the chain's profits which have already been battered somewhat by the recession.

I am in the awkward position of saying I have no desire to shop at Whole Foods while simultaneously being a stockholder in the company. And I hope to someday have an opportunity to vote on replacing John Mackey with a new CEO, one who doesn't quote Margaret Thatcher as a prelude to a piece which basically puts him or her in direct opposition to so many of those who have supported the business through the years.


Blueberry also had a nice rant which is where I found the link to the WSJ piece.

Crossposted at B3

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