Whole Foods CEO speaks to students about business philosophy, mission

Nathan Han

When Austin experienced extreme flooding in 1981, Whole Foods CEO and co-founder said his organic grocery store could have failed if it were not for his customers and employees.

“We had everything we have within that first store, literally, float down the river,” John Mackey said. “We should’ve died, but the stakeholders, employees and customers showed up the next morning and helped us clean the store.”

Mackey spoke to around 100 students Tuesday in Rowling Hall about Whole Foods and the business philosophy he developed as a result of the generous community response to the flood. 

“The moral of that story is that I realized we owe our customers and our team members and our suppliers,” Mackey said.

The event was hosted by the Undergraduate Business Council and the Center for Leadership and Ethics as part of the VIP Distinguished Speakers Series. Julian Ordaz, the VIP series chair for the council, said the series allows high-level executives to speak and share their perspectives with aspiring business students.

“Every VIP talk is interesting and different in its own right,” said Ordaz, finance and government sophomore. “Mackey dropped out of college and kind of defies what you think of standard business.”

Mackey studied philosophy and religion at the University in the 1970s but said he never took a business class and dropped out to start Safer Way, which would eventually become Whole Foods. Mackey also said his customer-driven philosophy was essential to the mission of Whole Foods. 

“I said, ‘You know what, before we sell Whole Foods (to Amazon), I’m having a meeting with Jeff (Bezos) one last time, and I’m going to go there to ask what’s the higher purpose of Amazon,’” Mackey said. “Whole Foods is a mission-driven company, and I needed to make sure we protect our purpose.”

Whole Foods was named one of America’s most reputable companies for corporate social responsibility by Reputation Institute, a research organization that ranks the credibility of global businesses.

Sarang Garg, economics and business sophomore, said Mackey had a different business perspective that he normally does not find in his classes.

“He’s someone who already has a position in the business world, and being CEO gives you a different outside perspective that you don’t normally get,” Garg said. “The fact that he never took a business class but still succeeded in the way he did is impressive.”