Top of the Food Chain

4 Minute Read

He was told his idea was dumb. No one but a few hippies would ever buy from his store. Others said he would never be able to compete with the giant grocery store chains like Kroger and Safeway. But luckily for millions of his customers, John Mackey didn’t listen. And today, the co-proprietor of a small natural foods store that opened in Austin, Texas, in 1980 employs 67,000-plus team members at more than 300 stores in North America and the United Kingdom.

So what’s the secret of John’s success? On a recent broadcast, Dave spoke with the co-founder and CEO of Whole Foods Markets about his road to making his company one where team members love to work and consumers adore shopping even more. Here are a few takeaways from his amazing story.

1. Empower the People

Team empowerment. For Dave, it’s been a major reason for his success. In fact, he believes in it so much that it is one of the main principles taught at EntreLeadership Master Series. And like Dave, John is a huge fan.  He says that when you treat your people well, celebrate wins, and see failures as a way to grow, success will follow. Each person who works for Whole Foods is on a team, and each team meets regularly to discuss issues, solve problems, and recognize each other’s contributions. Efforts are appreciated and results rewarded.


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“The retail market is kind of easy to understand,” John says. “You have to create value for your customers, or you are going to fail in the marketplace. … Your team members are the ones who create that value. They have to be well-trained and enjoy their work.”

2. Never Give Up

Creating the Whole Foods chain has been no day at the organic farm. Less than a year after opening, the worst flood in 70 years hit Austin. The flagship store’s inventory was wiped out, and most of the equipment was damaged. The water reached as high as seven feet. To make matters worse, John and his business partners had no flood insurance. Their losses totaled more than $400,000.

Despite the catastrophe, no one considered quitting. Plans to reopen started immediately, even though the founders had no idea if they would even be able to pay their team members. Cleanup began just as quickly.

By day three, the original investors agreed to reinvest. By day 28—with the help of the community and their loyal team members—the store reopened.

Through the years, there have been plenty of other of tough times, including an antitrust case when the company announced it was buying its largest competitor—Wild Oats—followed by an investigation by the SEC. Despite that being the worst time of his entire life, John says, he kept moving forward. Eventually, the sale went through, and John was cleared of any misconduct.

“Sure, you are going to get knocked back, but you have to be resilient,” John says. “You have to pick yourself up, learn from your mistakes, and do better next time. If you do that and you are persistent, then generally you’ll succeed.”

3. Leaders Are Readers

A lack of a college degree didn’t stop Mackey from pursuing his dream. The University of Texas dropout worked as a waiter, dishwasher and manager of a natural food store before starting Whole Foods. He learned every step of the way through those experiences.

John is also an avid reader and credits books by free-market proponents like economist Milton Friedman for his political views and much of his company’s success.

“A lot of millionaires are readers,” John says. “I think it’s because they are very curious about the world.”

What company will be the next big hit? By simply refusing to quit when the going gets tough, always being willing to learn, and recognizing that your team members are the key to your growth, it could be yours—despite what anyone says. Just ask John.

For more stories on entrepreneurs and leadership, download our EntreLeadership Podcasts, which include lessons from Dave, plus interviews with key business leaders from across the nation.

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