Whole Foods founder Mackey retakes helm in turnaround

Thu Nov 3, 2016 12:16pm EDT
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By Lisa Baertlein

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Whole Foods Market Inc (WFM.O: Quote) is staking its future on blunt, vegan co-founder John Mackey, betting the man who built the high-end health food grocery chain has the best shot of leading its turnaround.

Whole Foods on Wednesday said Mackey would resume his job as solo chief executive officer six years after he split the role with co-CEO Walter Robb, known as the businessman who carried out Mackey's vision.

The Austin, Texas-based grocer has reported five quarters of falling sales at established stores, and while the decline may be easing, Whole Foods faces intense competition from retailers ranging from Kroger to Walmart and Amazon.

"I like our positioning, but I'm not going to sugarcoat it ... We've got to up our game and that's what we are intending to do," Mackey said on a call reporting quarterly earnings.

He declined to elaborate on turnaround plans.

Mackey follows in the footsteps of other co-founders who re-established control of their companies, said retail expert Bill Bishop. Starbucks Corp (SBUX.O: Quote) co-founder Howard Schultz and Apple Inc (AAPL.O: Quote) co-founder Steve Jobs each returned as CEOs when their companies faltered.

Whether Mackey, whose steadfast presence at the chain was briefly broken by a five-month break to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2002, can pull off that turnaround is not clear.

"In this fast-changing, very competitive market, the question is whether the founder will have the skills to right the ship," said Bishop.   Continued...

John Mackey, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, speaks at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California, U.S., May 2, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson