John Mackey, the iconic co-founder and longtime CEO of Whole Foods Market, will retire late next year after more than four decades running the specialty grocery chain, Mackey announced in a letter to employees on Thursday.
Mackey will be succeeded as CEO by Whole Foods Chief Operating Officer Jason Buechel, who has served in the position since 2019. The change is scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, 2022.
"As a co-founder of Whole Foods, I’ve often explained my relationship to the company with a parent-child metaphor," Mackey said in the letter. "I have done my best to instill strong values, a clear sense of higher purpose beyond profits, and a loving culture that allows the company and all our interdependent stakeholders to flourish. All parents reach a time when they must let go and trust that the values imparted will live on within their children."
Mackey has served as CEO of Whole Foods since the company's establishment in 1980. Starting in 2010, he shared the CEO's role with Walter Robb, a veteran company executive who spent six years as co-CEO before leaving the post on Dec. 31, 2016. Six months later, Amazon announced it planned to buy Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion deal.
In a nod to Whole Foods' ownership by Amazon, which has operated the approximately 500-store grocery chain as a separate division since purchasing it but visibly added its imprint, Mackey acknowledged the company's succession plan wasn't entirely up to him.
"Jason was my personal choice to replace me as the CEO and I’m pleased Amazon leadership agreed that he is the right person for the role," Mackey wrote, adding that he plans to gradually hand off his responsibilities to Buechel during the coming year while spending time visiting stores and meeting with workers.
Buechel is currently responsible for the operations of all Whole Foods stores and facilities and runs the retailer's technology, supply chain and distribution, and Team Member Services operations. He joined Whole Foods in 2013 as global vice president and chief information officer after spending 12 years at Accenture, where he worked in the consulting firm's retail operations practice. Buechel was promoted to executive vice president and chief information officer of Whole Foods in 2015.
Here's a look back at Mackey's career:
Mackey, at the time a 25-year-old college dropout, borrowed $45,000 from family and friends to open SaferWay, a natural foods store in Austin, Texas. Mackey and business partner Renee Lawson began living at the store after they got evicted from their apartment for storing products.
Mackey and Lawson merged SaferWay with Clarksville Natural Grocery, and on Sept. 20 opened the first Whole Foods Market. The store was 10,500 square feet and had a staff of 19. A year later, a flood severely damaged the store, but after just 28 days it was back in business.
After expanding to major cities in Texas, Whole Foods made its first move out of the Lone Star State by acquiring Whole Food Company in New Orleans.
Whole Foods opened its first West Coast location in Palo Alto, California.
Whole Foods went public at a price of $2.125 per share. It also acquired Bread & Circus, the Northeast’s largest natural food retailer. From here, Mackey and Whole Foods acquired numerous additional natural foods chains, including Mrs. Gooch’s, Fresh Fields Markets, Bread of Life and Merchant of Vino, that would considerably expand its footprint.
The grocer launched its 365 brand, which touted prices that were 20% lower than its current Whole Foods private label. It also acquired Allegro Coffee, which would go on to become the company’s house brand coffee.
Whole Foods launched its first e-commerce site, WholeFoods.com, with an assortment of 6,000 nonperishable goods. But the site failed to attract significant interest, and so did a relaunched site, WholePeople.com, a year later. Whole Foods merged its internet properties with natural products maker Gaiam and formed Gaiam.com.
The specialty grocer opened its first New York City location, a 31,000-square-foot store at 250 7th Avenue in Chelsea.
Whole Foods made its first move overseas, acquiring seven Fresh & Wild stores in London. The company would open its first full-size Whole Foods store in the city three years later.
Whole Foods scooped up 109 Wild Oats stores for $565 million — its biggest acquisition yet. But an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission revealed, in a stunning turn of events, that Mackey had spent years on financial internet chat rooms cheering Whole Foods and disparaging Wild Oats under the pseudonym “Rahodeb.” The outspoken Mackey fired back at the FTC’s “bullying” lawsuit and the deal eventually went through.
Mackey published “Conscious Capitalism,” a book that outlines the ways in which businesses and capitalism can be a force for good in the world.
Whole Foods launched Whole Foods 365, a scaled-down store format, in Los Angeles, signaling a promising new opportunity. But Mackey and Whole Foods were struggling with rising competition from chain competitors. The year prior, Walmart became the U.S.’s largest seller of organic produce.
After a string of concerning financial reports, activist investor Jana Partners took a stake in Whole Foods, pushing it to reshuffle its board of directors. Mackey called the firm “greedy bastards” in a press interview but pledged deeper operational cuts, centralized purchasing and other measures. Then, in June, Amazon announced it would acquire Whole Foods for $13.7 billion.
Whole Foods and Amazon shuttered the 365 store format just three years after its debut. Reports also outlined a diminished role for Mackey under Amazon’s oversight. Despite his early proclamations that the acquisition was “love at first sight,” the two parties reportedly clashed frequently and Mackey assumed a lower public profile.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced numerous safety measures and operational changes at Whole Foods, as with all other grocers. As shoppers moved online, the chain scaled pickup across all of its stores, and store traffic remained sluggish longer than at competing stores. Mackey also published his fourth book, “Conscious Leadership.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the number of books written by John Mackey. He has written four.