Why Did John Mackey Sell Whole Foods?


Whole Foods was riding the waves of success in a niche it helped make mainstream. That’s why it was a surprise for some when it was sold to Amazon in 2017. But why did John Mackey sell Whole Foods?

Here’s what I know from working for John for over 2 decades:

When John Mackey decided to sell Whole Foods market to Amazon in 2017, Whole Foods Market was starting its 4th year of flat sales and declining profits. As a result, Mackey felt the company was in danger of going out of business unless they made a radical change.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Sadly, at a point, it started floundering. In fact, it was almost sold by some activist investors, who Mackey described as “greedy bastards.” It was then that he sought out Bezos, and the Amazon Knight rode in on his white steed.

But I will say having known John a long time, I doubt he made the decision easily.

I once saw him continually insist on a rematch in tennis after losing, and he kept playing until he finally won. He’s very competitive and doesn’t like to admit defeat.

In this article, I’ll share interesting info about how much Mackey made when WF was sold, the acquisition, and Whole Foods. I was a leader at the company (Whole Foods, not Amazon) for twenty years, and was once on a first-name basis with John.

Let’s cut to the chase…

Did John Mackey make a lot of money selling Whole Foods?

Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey was paid 8 million dollars for selling his company to Amazon. Additionally, he was also able to retain his position and title of CEO.

Honestly, while that might seem like a lot of money, considering how popular Whole Foods is and how much money it continues to make, it’s actually a really low figure.

It’s not entirely surprising given how much Whole Foods sales and profits had declined, though. And it’s also not surprising given that Mackey paid himself an annual salary of only $1.00 for many, many years.

Mackey has accumulated wealth, don’t get me wrong. But he’s still a modest guy (I’ve been to 2 of his houses over the years, and while nice, they are not what you might picture of someone super-wealthy).

The Whole Foods’s story is so enthralling. In fact, it’s no exaggeration that it’s one of America’s most impressive companies.

The founders (two sets of partners that were each running two different health food stores) started the company on what seems like a foolish idea.

It was based on the idea that they could have a store that’ll sell only wholesome products. And that they’ll sell only natural and organic produce. This is a notion that we take for granted today.

But when Whole Foods started, no one else was doing what John envisioned for his company.

And while it was successful right out of the gate, consider a few facts. That first store (where I started) was about the size of a 7-11 (under 10,000 square feet). And it was years before they opened a store outside of Texas.

Really it wasn’t until they went public (with selling stock) in 1993 and began to buy other chains as a way of growing faster, that Mackey began to really accumulate wealth.

But even before he changed his annual salary to only $1.00/year, his salary was always really modest compared to other CEOs of similarly sized companies. I know this because Whole Foods had an open-book policy on salaries. And it was easy to look up what anyone made.

Why did Jeff Bezos buy Whole Foods?

Jeff Bezos bought Whole Foods Market because it is a great company with a long history and he saw enormous profit potential if he could turn Whole Foods’ finances around.

And turn it around, he did.

Apart from Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos is probably the most ambitious entrepreneur alive. It’s not difficult to see why. Just look at the scale at which he operates and the mindset that underlies his business decisions.

He knows something on an experiential level, something many of us don’t get.

He knows that: You could make out like bandits if you’re obsessively focused on satisfying customers. Jeff Bezos is obsessed with growth. Consider that the “emperor of online-retail” has 15 businesses.

Let that sink in.

His first baby, Amazon, started a few decades ago seemed like a business that was surely destined for failure. For years it was unprofitable, and after decades of unflagging tenacity, it’s become one of the most formidable businesses on the planet.

So, Bezos knows a thing or two about businesses. He’s no greenhorn. When he paid 13.7 billion for Whole Foods, he knew what he was doing. It’s the largest acquisition he’s ever made.

He knew about the grocery sector.

After all, he owns AmazonFresh, a company that started operations a decade before buying Whole Foods. He knows, for example, that Americans spend about 12 percent of their income on food. Consider that retail and food services earned 6.7 trillion in 2019!

He knows that Whole Foods has seasoned and excellent management.

Whole Foods is a pioneer in the grocery sector. It’s also a company that’s hip to growth. And, interestingly, he has data which shows that there’s an overlap between Amazon’s customers and Whole Foods.’

In other words, they already have a lot of customers in common! Because Bezos is a strategist, he saw beyond Whole Foods’ challenges. He was getting access to physical locations and the grocery sector with the acquisition.

“Millions of people love Whole Foods Market because they offer the best natural and organic foods, and they make it fun to eat healthy,” Amazon Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

How are WFM employees faring after the sale? Do they get Prime? I explained whether they do or don’t in a recent article of mine. Just click the link to read it on my site.

Does John Mackey still run Whole Foods?

Yes, John Mackey was able to retain his title of CEO of Whole Foods Market and continues to run the company to this day. Amazon and Jeff Bezos no doubt have an interest in how the company is run. But John Mackey still makes the key decisions.

Whole Foods is his “baby,” so he should be the one calling the shots.

He co-founded it, ran it for years, and has been CEO since 2010. He largely shaped “America’s Healthiest Grocery Store’ into what it is. Interestingly, he was allowed to remain as CEO even after the acquisition. That says something.

But sooner or later, he’ll have to pass the torch to someone else?

Why? He’s 67 years old. The grocery sector is getting more highly competitive, so it’s conceivable that Amazon might think WF would be better served by a younger, more dynamic, and more technology-savvy leader.

The biggest challenge he’ll face then is that most of his top lieutenants moved on around the Amazon acquisition. Those would be the people most likely to have replaced him, and now that’s not (necessarily) an option. People like:

  • Walter Robb
  • David Lannon
  • Ken Meyer

Having said that, John Mackey has been a great captain for the WFM crew.

Of course, now and then, he says something that’s probably not very politically correct. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s one of America’s most visionary and able CEOs. He’s a magnetic figure who’s also a writer and advocate. He’s behind the philosophy of conscious capitalism.

It’s a testament to his managerial acumen that he and others built a company they eventually sold for 13.7 billion dollars! A company must have been doing some things right to attract that kind of offer. Whole Foods was doing a lot of things right, and it was highly popular.

What accounts for Whole Foods’ popularity?

How did a single store in Austin, TX, gradually morph into a multinational brand? That’s exactly what I looked at in a recent article of mine.

I explained why it’s a great place to work and shop. It’s the leader in the natural and organic food sector. It’s created an alluring environment where folks like to hang out, and now its prices are lower. What’s not to like?

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Was Whole Foods about to go out of business when they sold to Amazon?

Bankruptcy was not imminent at the time Amazon purchased Whole Foods Market. However, Whole Foods Market had been experiencing flat sales for four years at the time of the Amazon acquisition. It was also in its fourth year of declining profits and going out of business is a likely event if this continues.

In short, it was in dire straits when it was acquired.

Its sales were going south. Its share prices had plummeted. Some of its top management that I mentioned above, such as Walter Robb, David Lannon, and Ken Meyer, had left.

It was really struggling. It was in debt, too.

But it’s debatable whether it was about to go out of business, but if those kinds of returns had persisted for a few years, it would have been gone. Jana Partners, a hedge fund that had a stake in the company, wanted it sold.

They thought it was not well-managed. Mackey and the fund were feuding and weren’t in alignment.

Mackey actively sought out Bezos to help WF. In a recent article of mine, I shared some riveting facts about Bezos, what else he owns, and what he personally gained from buying Whole Foods.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

Did Whole Foods change under Amazon?

One of the most noticeable and expected changes from Amazon buying Whole Foods Market is pricing, as prices dropped approximately 20% almost immediately. But they also dropped their partnership with Instacart in favor of Amazon Fresh.

Whole Foods was pricey.

In fact, folks would joke that you needed a “whole paycheck” to be able to shop at the store because its products were expensive. Discounting was an alien concept.

Why is it expensive, and why were people flocking to the store despite its high prices? I’m glad you asked. That’s why in a recent article, I examined what made it more expensive. But I also covered what they were doing differently than other grocers that kept customers coming back despite the sticker shock.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

As a part of Amazon, and with the integration of the Prime option, most of its prices are now discounted. After all, Amazon is known for its low prices. Now regular sales are a part of the experience at Whole Foods, which is great for shoppers looking to stock up.

Another change was its partnership with Instacart, which handled online shopping and delivery for the company.

It was supposed to be a 5-year contract, but it’s been terminated. It makes sense seeing as Amazon is probably the best e-commerce company in the world. There’s really no need to outsource that function to Instacart after the acquisition.

Whole Foods’ online capabilities have been greatly enhanced. Prime offers customers the option of receiving grocery orders within two hours!

On the corporate level, Whole Foods has continued to centralize its operations in its hometown (Austin, Texas) and has embraced centralized purchasing (without cutting ties with its former regional suppliers).

But the move to centralize buying power has been in place for many years at this point and is not closely tied to Amazon directives.

Conclusion

In the preceding paragraphs, we looked at how much John Mackey made when WF was sold.

But we also looked at why Bezos bought the company, and whether the company was on the verge of collapse shortly before it was sold. Lastly, we explored if it’s still being run by Mackey, and we wrapped up by looking at some change post-Amazon.


Photo which requires attribution:

John Mackey by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC2.0 and was cropped, with a text and graphic overlay added.

Jeff Campbell

Hi! I'm Jeff Campbell. I was a leader for Whole Foods Market for over 2 decades. I worked in 9 stores in 4 states, not counting the hundred-plus stores I've assisted in other ways. I was a Global All-Star, a Gold Pen Winner, and won Top-10 Store (company-wide) 3 times in addition to Best New Store (company-wide).

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