September 29, 2013

Spotlight grows with grocer

Whole Foods leaders learn that more attention means working harder to protect the company's reputation.

By BRIAN GAAR Austin American-Statesman

AUSTIN, Texas - As it continues to grow into an internationally known brand, Whole Foods Market Inc. is learning a lesson that has been taught to many up-and-coming corporations before it.

Whole Foods Market
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Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market now has more than 350 stores and is posting record profits. “When we take a step or a make decision, it gets reported on,” said Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb.

McClatchy Newspapers

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Portland’s Whole Foods has a sustainable seafood program, where a color-coded sign indicates each fish’s level of sustainability.

John Ewing/2010 Press Herald file

The bigger the company gets, the brighter the spotlight -- both for good and bad -- that shines on it.

That's become a fact of life for the natural foods grocer, which is flying higher than ever with more than 350 stores, including one in Maine, and posting record profits. Nearly everything the company does makes news these days.

"In some ways, it's a compliment to how people see our company," said Whole Foods co-CEO Walter Robb. "I do think we're a leader in the food industry, and people look to us in that respect. And so when we take a step or make a decision, it gets reported on."

Andrew Wolf, an analyst with BB&T Capital Markets, said the challenges Whole Foods is dealing with aren't surprising. "The bigger you get, the bigger the target -- whether it's the unions or attorneys or civil rights groups or anybody," he said.

A handful of incidents in the past year have challenged the company -- both in protecting its reputation and in deciding whether its existing policies might have to evolve as it grows.

This summer, the company faced fallout over allegations that it punished two Hispanic employees in New Mexico for objecting to a policy restricting the use of Spanish at work.

While Robb and other company officials said the incident was a misunderstanding, the company did revise its language guidelines after an outcry from activists.

Robb said the New Mexico story was partly the product of a "gotcha culture" in the media, but he acknowledged that the company's prominence also factored in.

"Do I think it would have been picked up 10 years ago, or 15 years ago?" he said. "Probably, if we were smaller, no, probably not. Do I think it would be picked up at other companies (similar) as us right now, just because of where things are in the media? Yes I do."

Incidents like the language controversy in New Mexico can happen to any company because it's impossible to control all the actions of thousands of employees, said Wolf, the analyst with BB&T Capital Markets.

"You can't control them all," he said. "The best you can do is hire them well and train them well, and even then some of them are going to say stuff that's going to be embarrassing for the company."

When Whole Foods opened a store in Detroit in June, it got more media coverage than any other store opening in the company's history, Robb said. The company was hailed for opening a store in an area where people don't have immediate access to fresh foods -- but at the same time there was criticism that Whole Foods' prices were too expensive for lower-income residents.

That perception that Whole Foods is too expensive and caters to a largely affluent demographic continues to be a challenge for the company, Wolf said.

"That's been their biggest hurdle," Wolf said. "And that remains. I mean, they're not going to stop trying to create a better value image, because as they get bigger, they have to."

The company has worked hard to improve its value and accessibility, Robb said.

"I welcome the question, because it gives us a chance to have a dialogue about this myth that if you eat healthy it has to be expensive, or that eating healthy is only for certain people," he said. "That's just bull."

Whole Foods has also received pushback at times for the political views of some of its top leaders. In 2009, company co-founder and co-CEO John Mackey made national news -- and sparked scattered boycotts -- after he wrote an op-ed piece criticizing President Obama's health care plan.

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