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The Self-Made Man: John Mackey

The last time Whole Foods co-founder/former CEO John Mackey made the news, it was for his controversial statements about global warming and Obama’s health care plan. Take those however you will, but there’s more to Mackey than that. The story of how Whole Foods became the Starbucks of organic food (and I mean that in a good way) is also the story of Mackey’s entrepreneurial fervor. It’s worth examining him as one of TSB’s Self Made Men.

mackey2Mackey, unlike the twentysomething tech prodigies we’ve written about in previous columns, is a product of the 1960s, and was involved in that decade’s active counterculture. He lived in an urban co-op/commune and was a member of three different food-co-ops, believing that “the co-op movement was the best way to reform capitalism because it was based on cooperation instead of competition.”

But like many other businessmen from that era, Mackey got tired of dealing with myopic hippies and opened his own vegetarian food market, Safer Way, in 1978. Two years later, he merged his business with Clarksville Natural Grocery, run by Mark Skiles and Craig Weller, who are credited as co-founders of Whole Foods along with Renee Hardy-Lawson, Mackey’s one-time girlfriend.

Whole Foods took off once those two businesses merged, and Mackey guided its development from regional chain to international powerhouse, buying up smaller competitors (including Wild Oats Market) along the way. Mackey used Whole Foods’ momentum to set standards for humane animal treatment, creating the Global Animal Partnership for that purpose.

Mackey used Whole Foods as a platform for other philanthropic efforts, too. He launched the Whole Planet Foundation, the Local Producer Loan Program, and Whole Foods’ Health Starts Here employee wellness initiative during his tenure as CEO.

Mackey is mindful of wage gaps, as well. In 2006, he reduced his salary to $1 a year and donated his stock portfolio to charity, which he explained by saying that “I have reached a place in my life where I no longer want to work for money, but simply for the joy of the work itself” in a letter to the company. He also instituted caps on executive pay, which is refreshing when you’ve worked for as many incompetent administrators as I have.

So yeah, there’s more to John Mackey than what’s been reported about him. He might not be the social democrat he was in college, but he’s still trying to use that self-starter spirit to make the world a better and healthier place. He talks more about that in this interview with Reason TV.


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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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