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February 28, 2013
Whole Foods CEO: Big Business needs to re-invent itself

Businesses aren't bad.

But they've got a nasty reputation as greedy, selfish, exploitative, profit-at-all-cost companies. And it needs to change.

That's the message of Whole Foods Market founder and co-CEO John Mackey, who urged a UC Davis audience this week to embrace his "Conscious Capitalism" movement, based on his belief - and a book - that good businesses can change the world.

"Capitalism has been the greatest value-creator in the world ... but the reputation of business is so terrible in our society," he told a crowd of 500 in Freeborn Hall Wednesday night. The event was sponsored by Capital Public Radio and the UC Davis graduate school of business.

In a shout-out to today's young entrepreneurs, Mackey urged them to take the reins in redefining what makes a successful business.

Mackey, 58, said he's given up on his own generation. The changes necessary to re-invent business will not come from Baby Boomers in their 50s and 60s, who are "locked in and not really open to new ideas."

Instead, he challenged the so-called Millenial generation - those now in their 20s and 30s - to recapture the goodness inherent in business, the kind of social, environmental and economic good stewardship taking place at companies like Google, Costco, Panera Bread and Southwest Airlines.

"Business has to recapture why it exists ... Every business needs to discover a higher purpose other than just making money," said Mackey, who gave up his salary in 2006 when he realized he "was making enough."

Pacing the stage in khakis and a zip-up jacket, Mackey said business success comes not from "trickle-down" practices but by ensuring positive values are shared among all "stakeholders": employees, customers, suppliers, investors, the local community. "It's a web of relationships where all can simultaneously flourish ... You're looking for strategies where no one loses."

A college dropout who started his organic grocery empire in 1978 with a single health-food store in Austin, Texas, Mackey has built it into a Fortune 500 company with 340 locations worldwide and 70,000 employees. A non-union grocer, it consistently ranks in Fortune's list of the best workplaces.

He's a libertarian who's earned his share of critics for his outspoken views on too much government intervention. Among his other observations:

• Business has been hindered by a "macho culture" that thinks and acts in war metaphors: "kill the competition"; "Let's roll 'em," "you're dead, dude."

• Women will "create the next generation of Fortune 500 companies," partly because they communicate better and have a higher degree of "emotional intelligence."

• His worst business move: Buying a Boulder, Coloardo, mail-order vitamin manufacturing company for $140 million in 1997. Although it seemed like a good fit, Mackey admits Whole Foods didn't understand how to manage a vitamin-supply company, which floundered and was sold at a loss four years later - for $30 million. "Bad business decisions are one of the best ways to learn ... Don't buy a business you don't understand."

Business schools and companies should learn how to do "conscious business audits," similar to a financial audit, to measure progress toward environmental and socially responsible goals.

Now on a national book tour, he'll be back in Northern California for a "Conscious Capitalism" conference for individuals and business owners, April 5-6 in San Francisco.

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Meet Our Financial Experts

Claudia Buck

Claudia Buck is The Sacramento Bee's personal finance columnist. Read all her columns here. Contact her at cbuck@sacbee.com

Terri Carpenter

Terri Carpenter offers advice on job hunting, retraining and career counseling. Carpenter works at Sacramento Works Inc., the career and job training arm of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency (SETA). With 15 years in the field, she has hands-on experience with everyone from first-time job seekers to career professionals seeking advice after a layoff or looking for a mid-career change. Ask her a question.

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Carlena Tapella is a partner in the law firm of Webb & Tapella Law Corp. in Sacramento. The firm specializes in estate planning and probate, such as estates, trusts, conservatorships and litigation. She is a past president of the Sacramento County Bar Association's Estate Planning & Probate Section. Ask her a question.

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