The co-founder and retired CEO of Whole Foods, John Mackey, built a grocery store empire by embracing what he calls "conscious capitalism"—a management style that focuses on the higher purpose of a business and how it creates value not just for shareholders but for customers, employees, and other "stakeholders." Mackey has appeared in Reason's pages many times, including a landmark 2005 debate with Nobel laureate Milton Friedman and Cypress Semiconductor founder T.J. Rodgers about the social responsibility of business. For more on the ways that debate has evolved, check out Samuel Gregg's "Rise of the Stakeholders" (page 32).
In July, Reason's Nick Gillespie caught up with Mackey at FreedomFest 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada, not long before Mackey's retirement.
Q: How did Whole Foods keep it together during the pandemic?
A: There were massive disruptions, and it was a very difficult time. The lockdowns, I believe history will show, were probably the stupidest thing that the government will have done in the 21st century unless they get into a nuclear war. It was idiotic. It was very hard on the morale of the company. Our team members were scared about being exposed to COVID.
Q: Has morale improved at Whole Foods?
A: I am retiring from Whole Foods in just six weeks. I leave on September 1, after 44 years. I've been on a grand tour to say goodbye to all 10 of our regions and I have been in over 100 stores in the last couple of months saying goodbye. Morale is very high. I think because things have normalized, meaning people are not having to wear masks. They are able to hug and touch again. Team meetings have come back. I think it's kind of the joy of surviving. Life is precious, and you realize that you still got it.
Q: Your life's work is in markets and building value. How did you stay out of politics?
A: I have muzzled myself ever since 2009. I wrote that Wall Street Journal piece that created this huge controversy about Obamacare with my board. I just thought we needed to innovate in health care, not one-size-fits-all, which is what Obamacare is really about. My board basically shut me down. And I was intimidated enough to shut up.
Well, I was telling my leadership team, pretty soon you're going to be hearing about Crazy John, who's no longer muzzled.
Q: Is your biggest concern that everything is more politicized?
A: My concern is that I feel like socialists are taking over. They're marching through the institutions. They're taking everything over and taking over education. It looks like they've taken over a lot of the corporations. It looks like they've taken over the military. And it's just continuing. I'm so deeply concerned about it. I believe in liberty and capitalism. Those are my twin values.
Q: What are your plans for when you retire?
A: Three things. First, I'm working on another book. This will be the whole story. The story of Whole Foods. It's going to be my most important book. It is going to be narrative, not didactic. It's going to be entertaining and funny, because there's so many great stories. Secondly, I'm going to do a lot more backpacking. I've got a hiking trip planned in Europe starting in Austria, 488 miles. Thirdly, I'm co-founding another business with some friends. It's going to be called Love Life! It's not ready for prime time yet, but it's going to be a combination of healthy restaurants, wellness centers, gyms, spas, and lifestyle medicine. We're going to create a whole chain of those.
The best thing is I get to be more activist as a libertarian. That's been suppressed. I am going to be more active. I'm going to be a lot more visible.
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. For a podcast version, visit reason.com.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "John Mackey on Life After Whole Foods".