Whole Foods founder John Mackey on having Jeff Bezos as a boss: ‘People had this wrong stereotype that the CEO is like a god’
John Mackey started Whole Foods in Austin, Texas in 1978 with $45,000. In 2017, Amazon bought the grocer for $13.7 billion.
After nearly four decades of being the big boss, Mackey, still CEO of Whole Foods, said he is often asked what’s it’s like to now work for someone — namely Jeff Bezos. “People had this wrong stereotype that the CEO is like a god or something,” Mackey told Freakonomics Radio host Stephen Dubner in a podcast released Nov. 4.
But that’s not true, according to Mackey.
“It hasn’t been as big a switch as you’d think,” he said on Freakonomics Radio. To ask what it’s like to finally have a boss is to “completely misunderstands the way most corporations operate,” Mackey said.
“I mean, I’ve always had a boss. I always reported to the board of directors at Whole Foods.”
In addition, Mackey said he has tried to be a servant leader, which means he has been “serving the higher purpose of the company” in addition to its stakeholders.
And logistically, Mackey said Whole Foods has retained some amount of autonomy even after being acquired.
“Whole Foods has changed and evolved, to be sure, but in a respectful way. I always use this analogy, when you get married, do you change?” Mackey said to Dubner. “And the answer is, ‘Duh, if you don’t change, you’re going to get a divorce.’ So Whole Foods is changing, not because Amazon’s cramming a bunch of things down our throat, but because they do a lot of things that we want to take in.”
For instance, Whole Foods didn’t track its “shrink” — goods lost to a combination of spoilage, shoplifting and employee theft — before the Amazon acquisition, but does now, Mackey says. Amazon also put into place things like Amazon lockers in stores and discounts for Prime members.
But according to Bloomberg, two years after the acquisition, the Whole Foods shopping experience remained mostly unchanged. “[T]here have been few glimpses of new ideas that Amazon could bring to supermarket shopping,”
For employees of Whole Foods, however, conditions have “become noticeably worse” since the Amazon acquisition, as reported by the food industry website Eater, and health insurance benefits for part-time employees were cut. A Whole Foods spokesperson told Eater of the benefits reduction that it affected only a small percentage of total workforce, the move was made “to better meet the needs of our business and create a more equitable and efficient scheduling mode,” and that those who were affected would receive “resources to find alternative health care coverage options,” or can “explore full-time, health care-eligible positions.”
From the executive level, however, the transition was more copacetic, Mackey says, and that’s partly because Whole Foods had previously acquired other companies.
“I understand well what you’re looking for with the company that’s coming in,” Mackey tells Dubner. “And mostly you’re looking for the acquired company to be excited to be part of the larger firm, to start talking in the ‘we’ language instead of the ‘us/them’ language, to figure out what the acquiring company wants and then try to make sure that you help give it to them.”