Whole Foods draws attention
AUSTIN, Texas — As it continues to grow into an internationally known brand, Whole Foods Market Inc. is learning a lesson that has been taught to many up-and-coming corporations before it.
The bigger the company gets, the brighter the spotlight — both for good and bad — that shines on it.
That's become a fact of life for the Austin-based natural foods grocer, which is flying higher than ever with more than 350 stores and posting record profits. Nearly everything the company does makes news these days.
“In some ways, it's a compliment to how people see our company,” said Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. “I do think we're a leader in the food industry, and people look to us in that respect. And so when we take a step or make a decision, it gets reported on.”
Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, said the challenges Whole Foods is dealing with aren't surprising. “The bigger you get, the bigger the target — whether it's the unions or attorneys or civil rights groups or anybody,” he said.
A handful of incidents in the past year have challenged the company — both in protecting its reputation and in deciding whether its policies might have to evolve as it grows.
This summer, the company faced fallout over allegations that it punished two Hispanic employees in New Mexico for objecting to a policy restricting the use of Spanish at work.
While Robb and other company officials said the incident was a misunderstanding, the company did revise its language guidelines after an outcry from activists.
Robb said the New Mexico story was partly the product of a “gotcha culture” in the media, but he acknowledged that the company's prominence factored in.
Incidents like the language controversy in New Mexico can happen to any company because it's impossible to control all the actions of thousands of employees, said Wolf, the analyst with BB&T Capital Markets.
“You can't control them all,” he said. “The best you can do is hire them well and train them well, and even then some of them are going to say stuff that's going to be embarrassing for the company.”
When Whole Foods opened a store in Detroit in June, it got more media coverage than any other store opening in the company's history, Robb said. The company was hailed for opening a store in an area where people don't have immediate access to fresh foods — but at the same time there was criticism that Whole Foods' prices were too expensive for lower-income residents.
That perception that Whole Foods is too expensive and caters to a largely affluent demographic continues to be a challenge for the company, Wolf said.
The company has worked hard to improve its value and accessibility, Robb said.
“I welcome the question, because it gives us a chance to have a dialogue about this myth that if you eat healthy it has to be expensive, or that eating healthy is only for certain people,” he said. “That's just bull.”
Whole Foods has received pushback at times for the political views of some of its top leaders. In 2009, company co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey made national news — and sparked scattered boycotts — when he wrote an op-ed piece criticizing President Obama's health care plan.
Robb said the fallout over Mackey's health care comments made them more careful as company leaders.
“I think we both recognized that — being a public company CEO — that times have changed and it isn't so much about what you individually think as you're representing the company and you have lots of shareholders and stakeholders and that has to be taken into account,” he said. “So I think both of us are a lot more careful about when we speak, that we're speaking on behalf of the company.”
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Crazy Mocha owner likes comfort, says shrewd decisions foster growth
- Crude oil tumble signals low gasoline prices this fall
- Investors shy from Israeli drugmaker Teva amid uncertain Mylan takeover
- Farm use of drones to take off as feds loosen restrictions
- Atlantic City on hot streak with non-gambling ventures
- No more ‘roar’ as famed trading pits come to an end
- New J.C. Penney CEO comes from middle-income America
- Pittsburgh’s tech startup activity rates last of 40 metro areas in report
- Corporate America speaking out on social issues, getting results
- After years of downsizing, big houses make comeback
- Halliburton to close Indiana County office