Around the Water Cooler With Whole Foods' CEO

US News

It may not be a surprise that potatoes topped with fresh onions and tomatoes, beans sautéed in garlic and slow cooked whole grain oatmeal are some of Walter Robb's favorite dishes to cook (and eat). But ask this Whole Foods Market co-CEO to fix a side of Brussels sprouts, and you'll lose your dinner invitation.

"I cannot do Brussels sprouts," he says. "I just can't do the darn things ... I pushed my Brussels sprouts under the table [as a child] because I hated them."

Luckily for him, the 355 Whole Foods Market stores throughout the United States, Canada and United Kingdom generate their $12 billion in revenue off much more than Brussels sprouts.

Robb, 59, a self-proclaimed entrepreneur, founded his first store, Mountain Marketplace, at age 21 after graduating from Stanford University. He ran it for about 10 years before selling it and starting what became Whole Foods' 12th store in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1991. Robb remained the store manager and worked his way up to become president of the Northern Pacific Region, executive vice president of operations, COO, co-president and eventually co-CEO with Whole Foods founder John Mackey - a position he's held since 2010.

"I've done just about everything you could do in a food store," Robb says, not undermining the fact that the job can be physically draining. "It's very helpful in being able to talk with folks because you understand the work that they're doing, and you also really appreciate it."

[See: What Does a Whole Foods Market CEO Eat?]

While he works in Austin, where Mackey founded Whole Foods Market (originally named Safer Way Natural Foods, as a spoof on the supermarket chain Safeway, in 1980), U.S. News chatted with Robb from his second office in the San Francisco Bay area. We found out he dislikes the corporate ladder as much as he despises Brussels sprouts. His responses have been edited.

You started as a store manager and worked your way up to becoming CEO. Do you have any advice for employees who want to move up the ladder?

Forget the ladder because the most important thing is to work on doing things you find fulfilling, and if you do that - and do it extremely well - then things will take care of themselves. I've seen over the years many people try to aim directly at the ladder or the next rung, and it ends up being very obvious. It's not a very good reason to give someone a promotion just because they want to move up.

My advice is go do what you love. Go for the area that you really find fulfilling because that's where you'll make the best contribution, and the company will be better for it. It's like what Aristotle said about life's purpose: "Where the needs of the world and your talents cross, there lies your vocation." In the same sense, where the needs of the company rely on your talents, that's where you should go.

For the past 16 years, Forbes has named Whole Foods one of the 100 best companies to work for. If there's one thing a company can do to ensure employee satisfaction, what would that be?

Have your commitment to team members' happiness and excellence be genuine. Folks today are looking for a place to work that's more than just a paycheck. Certainly they want the paycheck and the benefits, but I think they want to feel the connection with them is genuine. They look to see that in the decisions you make and actions you take.

If you are genuine in that, they'll reward you with their time and energy and support. That's a beautiful thing. It has to be earned each day through good decision-making. And it can be lost in a heartbeat - it's very hard to get back when it is lost.

There's been debate among experts about whether organic food is actually healthier, and there's a movement calling for food produced from genetically modified organisms to be labeled. What can companies do to defend products that come under scrutiny?

You've got to speak up and defend what you think to be true. Just because somebody put something in the media or in a study doesn't mean it's accurate. You've got to be willing participants in that dialogue.

Second, you've got to support your trade association. We support the Organic Trade Association, and we started the Organic Center for Education and Promotion, which funds double-blind peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate the utility of the organic claim. If you're proactively starting, founding, joining or supporting organizations to help bring the customers more credible information, I think that's helpful to the dialogue.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With Nestle Waters Chairman.]

In April we declared for full GMO transparence by 2018. That's something Whole Foods led the market on. It's a combination of the leadership decisions and actions to demonstrate to your customers, and to the marketplace, that you're going to lead on these issues, as well as supporting, and in some cases, creating organizations that can more broadly cover these topics. What you don't do is turn into a shrinking violet. You engage in a robust dialogue.

It's also very much a partnership with your customers. They were very influential with me and on our team [concerning GMOs] because they wrote us thousands of letters and emails about how they felt, urging us to take a stronger stand. I do think you listen to your customers, you have an active dialogue with them and you learn from them.

Do you have any tips for busy working parents who want their families to eat healthy, but don't have time to cook every night?

First of all, we're Whole Foods, not holy foods, so leave the judgment at the door. It's really about starting wherever you are and taking whatever steps you can take toward a healthier life.

But just adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, that's the No. 1 thing you can do. It turns out your mom was right about the veggies - vegetables are these powerhouses.

I think it's clear that the traditional American diet is killing the country. It's also become clearer that fresh, healthy foods -- however you define them, including organic - that this is the way of the future. We have believed for almost 34 years that whole foods, with a small "w," are more healthy to individuals and communities than foods that are not.

[Read: Around the Water Cooler With CVS Caremark's Executive Vice President.]

Do you consider yourself a good cook?

You know, I'm learning. Lately, I've been learning to make a few sauces, but I would consider myself a decent cook. If you came over for dinner I think you would be happy.

But there would be no Brussels sprouts, I'm assuming?

If you come over for dinner, I'm not fixing Brussel sprouts. No way.

Last question, what's the best career advice you've ever received?

One piece of advice is from my mom: "Have the courage to go and do what you believe." Most people can see things, but they don't have the courage to go do it and try something.

And this is a great piece of advice John [Mackey] gave me once: "When you're faced with a tough decision, make the one that excites you the most." I've drawn on that many times over the years.

Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.



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