Was John Mackey Forced Out as Whole Foods Chairman?

John Mackey stepped down as Chairman ofthe Board of Whole Foods Market Inc. last month, and ever since people have wondered if he was forced out. The question is a fair one given the uproar over Mackey’s Wall Street Journal opinion piece which began by quoting former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher on the evils of socialism, and went on to condemn President Obama’s healthcare agenda.

Mackey wrote in the WSJ piece:

While we clearly need health-care reform, the last thing our country needs is a massive new health-care entitlement that will create hundreds of billions of dollars of new unfunded deficits and move us much closer to a government takeover of our health-care system. Instead, we should be trying to achieve reforms by moving in the opposite direction—toward less government control and more individual empowerment.

The CtW Investment Group, a shareholder activist group, called for Mackey’s removal because the WSJ piece damaged the grocery chain’s reputation. In a letter, CtW cited Mackey’s “lack of personal discipline and reputational risk,” and labeled him a “liability because of his ‘indiscretion.’” The letter said Mackey “attempted to capitalize on the brand reputation of Whole Foods to champion his personal political views but has instead deeply offended a key segment of Whole Foods consumer base.”

The letter pointed out that after the WSJ piece, at least 26,000 people joined a Whole Foods boycott page on Facebook. “Numerous commentators have noted that a boycott of Whole Foods by politically progressive customers could cause a significant loss of shareholder value,” the letter stated.

CtW Investment Group Executive Director Bill Patterson said,

This is not the first time Mr. Mackey’s unsanctioned communications have damaged Whole Foods’ image with consumers and investors.  At a time when shareholders are looking for Whole Foods’ management to focus on improving operations in an uncertain economy, we can not afford the risk to our Company’s brand reputation caused by Mr. Mackey’s indiscretion. He has become a liability and the board should begin the process of identifying a suitable replacement.

The January 4 issue of The New Yorker magazine contained a lengthy article profiling Mackey. Its author, Nick Paumgarten, noted that on the list of 13 books Mackey was reading, sent to him by a press representative, was a book titled, Heaven and Earth: Global Warming—the Missing Science. Paumgarten characterized the book as a “skeptical take on climate change.”

Paumgarten said Mackey told him that “it would be a pity to allow hysteria about global warming to cause us to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty.” He noted, “One would imagine that, on this score, many of his customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree.”

Whole Foods customers tend to be environmentally-conscious and hold progressive political views. Whether Mackey was forced out or not, it is never wise to deeply offend your company’s customer base. As an article for Bnet asked, “Does he not know people who shop at Whole Foods?”

Ed Note: Post has been edited to correct the error on Mackey’s position. He stepped down as Chairman of the Board and remains CEO of the company.

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Gina-Marie is a freelance writer and journalist armed with a degree in journalism, and a passion for social justice, including the environment and sustainability. She writes for various websites, and has made the 75+ Environmentalists to Follow list by Mashable.com.