John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market, seems like a man of contradictions. His company’s motto is “Whole Foods, Whole People, Whole Planet” -- yet he says there’s an upside to global warming, and he’s reportedly wary of labor unions. He’s a vegan with a self-described Libertarian bent. He’s grown his business to an $11 billion Fortune 300 company, but his salary is $1 per year. To 70,000 team members, he’s the boss. Still, as he told Off the Cuff, “I sometimes put my foot in my mouth.”
In 1978, Mackey and his then-girlfriend opened a small natural foods store in Austin, Texas, with a $45,000 loan from friends and family. Whole Foods now has 340 stores worldwide. The company advertises its commitment to organic produce, seafood sustainability and what it describes as its “Green Mission.” But Mackey’s views on climate change may surprise his core customers.
“I haven’t been outspoken about global warming. I’ve been smeared quite a bit in the media about it – all of a sudden, I’m a climate change denier. I mean, climate change is obviously occurring. So -- it's gotten a little bit warmer. I guess my position on it is that I don't think that's that big a deal. Actually, humanity’s flourished usually when temperatures gradually warmed. And humans gradually adapt to it,” he told Off the Cuff.
As for regulation to reduce global warming, he said, “We can probably eliminate poverty on the planet earth in the next 50 years if we will just continue to follow the tenets of free enterprise capitalism to the greatest extent possible. So I just don't want to see that change.”
Mackey’s taken some heat for some of his other publicly stated opinions. In a recent interview on NPR, he characterized President Obama’s health care legislation, ‘Obamacare’ as “more like fascism.” He backpedaled in subsequent interviews.
“I sometimes put my foot in my mouth, so I suppose that’s a vice,” he told Off the Cuff. “I’m getting more mature, finally, so I’m a little bit better, but I still make mistakes. And I made one fairly recently, so I’m learning all the time. I hope I keep learning.”
When asked what effect his outspokenness has on his PR team, he laughed and said, “That’s why there’s three of them here today, in case one of them dies.”
RELATED: High School Dropout to Tech Titan
Mackey’s views on what he called the “higher purpose” of business are the subject of his new book “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business,” in which he advocates balancing profitability with social conscience. He told CNBC: “business has a very bad reputation in our society. Yet business is the greatest value creator in the world. Business needs to come to understand that it has the potential for a higher purpose, besides just maximizing profits and shareholder value.”
Mackey says he lives simply so he can give away more. He drives an ordinary car, he flies commercial. “I prefer that. I have what I need in life and I’m not about impressing people with a display of wealth. That doesn’t do anything for my self-esteem. I live relatively modestly and it gives me more money to give away and help other people with, “he said. In 2006 Mackey announced that he was reducing his salary to $1 a year, and stated that he would donate his stock to charity.
RELATED: How CEOs Spend It
His one extravagance is the ultra-light hiking gear he buys for his yearly long-distance hiking expeditions. “My pack is lighter than most people’s day packs when they just go out for a couple of hours.”
The best advice he’s ever been given? “Life’s very short. None of us is getting out of here alive, therefore we should go for it. Don’t try to play it safe because there is no safety. So follow your heart, follow your passions. Life will be a grand adventure and it will be a lot of fun.”