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We had a story the other day about how Walmart CEO Doug McMillon laid out aggressive environmental and sustainability goals, saying that it wants to Walmart is double the sales of locally grown produce in the U.S.; expand and enhance sustainable sourcing to cover 20 key commodities, including bananas, coffee and tea; and implement a new plan designed to achieve science-based targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Part of my commentary read as follows:

I give the company a lot of credit for trying to do the right thing. McMillon seems to accept the notion that Walmart's size and ubiquity gives it extra responsibilities, and he appears focused on living up to them while understanding that he also has to keep the company productive and profitable. That's not an easy balancing act, but I think he's decided to take the long view - his approach may create some short term rough spots, but the decisions will bear fruit (some of it, apparently, fair trade and/or local) in the long run.

It gave MNB reader Richard Layman pause:

Walmart doesn't have "responsibilities."  They make business decisions.  It's to their advantage to make commitments concerning the environment and sustainability so they do.  It was to their advantage to underpay women and cut people's hours, so they did that too.

How people mess up their thinking about WM is believing that they make decisions based on norms or values.

Sure, making smart business decisions that result in increased profitability is a top priority, but I also think that aligning one's brand with relevant and appropriate social responsibilities and public policy priorities is critical to being successful in the modern market.

I think it is fair that McMillon is trying to move Walmart in specific directions when it comes to seeming - and actually being - more responsible. And I think that's a good thing.

I've raised the possibility several times, based on conversations I've had with people a lot smarter about this stuff than I am, that maybe Whole Foods is getting rid of the wrong co-CEO.

MNB reader Rich Richardson disagrees:

I’m not sure I’m aligned with your opinion on John Mackey and his ability to steer the Whole Foods ship, based primarily on not knowing where some of the ideas you mentioned like the loyalty program, fresh food delivery, and lower prices and accessibility for younger shoppers came from.

If those are Mackey’s ideas, you may be selling him short, as “a purist”, since I think we would both agree that Bezos also fits that mold, with his laser focused obsession on the consumer, complimented by the best loyalty program on the planet!

In fact, some of the very things that you agreed with Tom Furphy on in "The innovation Conversation," are the same things you challenge Whole Foods on...

For example, Tom said specifically that “it absolutely behooves retailers to develop their own “lock in” strategy, and “They should ask themselves what it is that they can offer their shoppers to make them the go-to destination for the products that they carry.”

If Mackey is the source for the previously mentioned ideas, it seems at least to me, that he is doing exactly what Tom said he (and all other retailers) should be doing.

From another reader:

I completely disagree.

Yes, WFM is in a highly competitive space of natural organic grocery that it established.

Yes. Their competition is relentless and with deep pockets.

Yes.  Mr. Mackey is not Howard Shultz and neither are Jeff Bezos (although Mackey and Schultz both sell their books on Jeff’s platform.

Mackey is a purist. I had a chance to ask him a question about his mantra Conscious Capitalism, the relationship to WFM and his controversial article about health coverage in the US.   He walked to the podium, stood tall and said in the most commanding voice, “Listen to me.” At that moment, you could hear a pin drop of the 500 people in the room and he proceeded to lay out the convergence of health, food and the role each of us in resolving more access to quality health care and food, while improving the environment. Nobody moved.

He had a plan.  He had a vision.  He had the data.  He has the conviction.

Yes, every business needs someone to plan, control, staff, organize and execute responsibly.  That is an absolute.  However, today - more than ever, we need leadership disrupting the status quo.  (Don’t look up at political landscape.)

I have fullest confidence in Mr. Mackey.

Another MNB reader chimed in:

Having worked with Whole Foods for 20 years while I was working with the magazine company that serves them-meaning before and after going public – several things came to mind.

Mission: What does Whole Foods stand for these days?  While Mr. Mackey says they won’t compete on price….they have been with those lower priced and staffed stores in Detroit, Chicago and New Orleans and the 365 brand which borrows concepts from the former roll outs. The recent Hepatitis outbreak in the Detroit store, the infused water flap, and weight discrepancy problem they’ve had over the last year or so are symptomatic to me of something else: Whole Foods has lost some of the qualities that made them who they are.  Whole Foods is the last place I would have expected a problem with food safety. And yet….

Public Company: Very few of the grocers I’ve seen go public over the years have prospered as a result. The scrutiny in being public, activist investors, all the red tape that comes with being pubic has hurt Whole Foods in the long run. Sure they’ve expanded and for a while rode this great wave….but they can’t operate the way they did when they built the brands reputation for quality when they were the retailer other grocers looked towards. They’ve been saddled with the whole paycheck meme that lazy journalists keep repeating. They were never about saving money but getting your money’s worth of quality. But with Wall Street weighing in each quarter it’s impossible to Whole Foods to keep on track with its own internal organic track.

Private Equity: I don’t believe Whole Foods should stay public.  The Private Equity industry is performing much better than Wall Street because the companies involved have a focus and- they’re aren’t the same kinds of challenges around activist investors, quarterly profits etc. I was skeptical about the Kroger rumor of a few weeks ago-about buying Whole Foods. Kroger has its hands full with the Roundy’s acquisition-they’ve already slowed capital investment down for that chain and have put some Mariano’s projects hold.   At this point the right private equity company-say one like Endeavour which seems to be doing well with their portfolio which includes New Seasons, Metropolitan Market and Bristol Farms-might be the only answer for Whole Foods.   (Did you know the Carlyle private equity company is now the second largest employer in the country after Walmart-with 725,000 employees  among all the companies it owns?)

Move the Baby Boomers aside. Mr. Mackey is an icon but maybe it’s time for him to let go and let some new people guide things. I would suggest giving Jeff Turnas more influence.  It may be time to reduce the cult of personality aspects that hover around the brand and get some proven younger leaders into higher positions so the brand stays relevant while staying true to its core mission.

KC's View: