WHOLE FOODS MARKET

Walter Robb was Whole Foods' co-CEO. He thinks the Amazon deal was right.

Former exec says he’s proud of what Whole Foods accomplished during his time at the company. “We made a significant contribution of the evolution of food in this country.” 

Posted January 23rd, 2018

Walter Robb says it’s clear Amazon was the best option for Whole Foods Market’s future. 

The former Whole Foods co-CEO, now an investor in other food companies, said leaders at the grocer made the best possible decision in selling the company to the online retailer at a time when investors were calling for change. Amazon completed its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods in August. 

During an interview with the American-Statesman, Robb spoke about his post-Whole Foods life, his belief in Whole Foods’ future and his pride in helping develop the company into an international brand.

“I spent my whole life and career trying to work to build a sustainable food system and a responsible company," said Robb, 64. "I'm extremely proud of the whole Whole Foods team and .... what we accomplished." 

Robb left the co-CEO role at the end of 2016, with Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey assuming a solo chief executive role. Whole Foods was going through a number of struggles at the time, and major shareholders were calling for change.

After rising to Fortune 500 level from its start with a single Austin store in 1978, Whole Foods watched as competitors ate away at its market share, and the grocer, while having revolutionized organic eating, struggled to shed its pricey image. Last April, Jana Partners, then a major Whole Foods stakeholder, pressured the company to make significant changes.

Courtesy of Whole Foods MarketFormer Whole Foods Market Co-CEO Walter Robb.

Whole Foods and Amazon announced their deal on June 16, and Robb remained on the company’s board until it was dissolved upon the close of the sale on Aug. 28.

Robb first joined Whole Foods in 1991 and began managing a store in Mill Valley, Calif.

In 1993, he was promoted to president of Whole Foods’ northern pacific region, which expanded from two to 17 stores under his watch before Robb started working as the company’s vice president of operations in 2000. Robb then became chief operating officer in 2001, co-president in 2004 and co-CEO in 2010.

After 26 years at Whole Foods, Robb officially said goodbye to the company and its leadership team during a dinner on Oct. 11 at Jeffrey’s restaurant in Austin.

“If you think about your own life, a company’s life is no different -- it does not go in a straight line,” Robb said. “But if you take a long perspective to where we started, it’s pretty amazing what happened.

“I believe legacy is best left for others to say.”

Robb has continued his interest in the food industry since leaving Whole Foods. He is an investor and board member at multiple companies, including FoodMaven, which sells over-supplied products from stores to restaurants and institutional kitchens, and HeatGenie, a maker of self-heating drink containers.

He is also still the board chairman of the Whole Kids and Whole Cities foundations, two nonprofits established by Whole Foods.

Robb would not discuss details of Whole Foods’ buyout, or how he believed the grocer would operate under the rule of the online retailer, but he said he felt pride in what Whole Foods built prior to Amazon.

“We made a significant contribution of the evolution of food in this country and a significant contribution to be able to get to a place where people are talking about the quality of food that they are eating,” Robb said. “The decision was to support this partnership with Amazon as the best way to move that mission forward in the world. I’m hopeful that the things Whole Foods stands for will continue for many years.”

In the five months since Amazon acquired Whole Foods, some prices have been lowered at the grocer and both entities have been integrated a bit through Amazon’s websites. Whole Foods has also reportedly changed some of its processes with suppliers. But much has also remained the same.

As both the partnership and overall grocery industry continue to mature, Robb said organic and natural food companies like Whole Foods shouldn’t forget their roots. 

Natural food sellers should “continue to be true to the idea that quality of food matters,” Robb said. “But they also need to change in the new ways customers are shopping; in the way they now want for food to be delivered. So it’s about having your feet firmly planted in your values but also evolving to serve customers.

“The real question is: Where is this all going? I have every confidence in the Whole Foods team to do a stellar job.”’

Comments