Whole Foods Founder Begins a New Adventure
At the American Business History Center, we rarely comment on current events or living entrepreneurs. At the same time, our study of the lessons of the past is motivated by our desire to understand the present and the future.
All of the great businesses we study started somewhere, with one person. The best soon attract other talented people to their cause. Business history is made by entrepreneurs and leaders.
Because your writer has a personal connection to this entrepreneur and his story, we thought it worth sharing. Whole Foods Market co-founder and long-time CEO John Mackey is an excellent example of how companies are born, how history is made. At the end of this article, I have reprinted John’s announcement of his new venture.
Here is my personal story about my friend John and Whole Foods, along with some key takeaways from the new announcement.
I arrived in Austin, Texas in the spring of 1982, seeking the site for the first location for my own business idea, Bookstop, the first chain of giant book superstores. (You can read that full story here.) Based on my advance research, I wanted to be at the corner of 38th and Lamar, but no suitable space was available. So I looked further north at Koenig and Burnet — again, no luck. In desperation, I reached the edge of the city and looked at a proposed shopping center, the Crossroads Center at 183 (Research Blvd.) and Burnet. The young leasing agent, Jim Ross, told me about a group who had a health foods store in Austin but was considering moving to the new center. He said I would like the head guy, about my age, a smart entrepreneur, but a bit eccentric, even “hippie,” with an obsession on healthy food.
That led me to meet the man, at a plain warehouse in East Austin. His name was John Mackey. He and his friends had one store, Whole Foods Market. It was probably doing no more than $10 million a year in revenue, not a big number in the grocery business. It did not take long to realize that John and company were on a mission. Ever since he was a teenager, John had worried about the diet and resulting health of Americans.
Bookstop and Whole Foods both opened in that shopping center and did very well. As the years proceeded, both companies expanded, entering Houston together in 1984. John and I talked often, and I ended up spending four and half years on the Whole Foods Board of Directors, during their period of early expansion and listing on the stock market.
Venture capitalists backed both companies. At one point, some of the VCs who had not invested in Whole Foods asked me, “Is this health food thing a fad? Or will it become a big deal, therefore the Krogers and Safeways of the world will crush Whole Foods?”
It’s not unusual for those who do not understand an industry to claim that “the big guys will eat you alive.” But any study of business history indicates this rarely happens. Did Blockbuster kill off Netflix? Did Howard Johnson’s, once the nation’s largest restaurant company, stomp out McDonald’s? Did giant Kmart kill off the small company called Walmart? Perhaps it is hard for financiers, who think money matters most, to understand the power of having a purpose, a vision of a changed future, and the will and ability to create that future.
So I pushed back to the VCs, telling them that it was not a fad and I wasn’t worried about the big grocers “stomping them out.’ Whole Foods was a learning organization, with leaders filled with curiosity, willing to experiment, always evolving and growing. Needless to say, those who invested early in Whole Foods were handsomely rewarded.
Fast forward to August 2023 John, at 70 years of age, now retired from Whole Foods, still has the energy, drive, and vision to begin again. I believe his new idea has as much potential as Whole Foods, probably more. But there is a gap between potential and reality, and both John and I know how hard it can be to launch a new idea and make it all work, in a very competitive and ever-changing world.
Some might say, “But he’s rich, he has done it all before, he knows all these investors, it is easy for him, not for others.” Yet big rewards like those that Whole Foods created only come with big risks.
One of the best VCs on the Whole Foods Board was the late Jerry Gallagher. Jerry was the top retail company analyst on Wall Street when I arrived there in the early 1970s. He went on to become the CFO of retail giant Dayton-Hudson (now called Target), then became a VC, backing many retail successes including Dick’s Sporting Goods and Whole Foods Market.
Jerry once told me that he hesitated investing in an entrepreneur on their second venture. Too often, coming off great success, entrepreneurs think they can “do it again.” It is very difficult for a leader to be highly successful without having some hubris, or at minimum an enormous level of confidence. Based on his study of startups, Jerry had seen many failures on that second go-round. He was very comfortable investing in entrepreneurs on their third venture, when they had learned more, or after they had known failure. In short, after they had acquired or enhanced their humility. As I like to say, the life of an entrepreneur is a life of continual self-discovery.
There is no certainty that John’s new business, Love.Life, will succeed. However, I believe the odds of success are high, not because he has done it all before, so much as John’s attitude, approach, and vision. Here are three promising indicators I see in his announcement:
- Very quickly into the letter he gives a concise statement of the purpose of the business: “Love.Life is an integrated health and wellness company that makes lasting health and longevity attainable. The company unites the power of nourishing food, evolved medical care, and precision wellness therapies to promote healing, optimization, vitality, and community.”
- There is no limit on the new venture’s ambition, it has a BIG goal: “Our long-term goal is nothing less than to transform the fundamental health and longevity of America and eventually the entire world!” Yet he plunges immediately into a highly specific description of the idea and strategy: “How will we do this? We have two primary strategies.” And, unusual in many startups, he has patience – even at the age of 70, he says, “It will take us many years to locate and build Love.Life physical centers in all the major urban areas.”
- John’s focus on the customer is apparent from repeated mentions of the specific benefits: “healthier, greater vitality, stronger immune system, optimal weight, sleep longer and deeper, better stress management, and increase both your healthspan and your lifespan.”
While the letter does not include numbers and projections, I know John well enough to know that he is intimately familiar with his revenue and expense numbers, based on study, and has specific goals for the future.
It has been said that there are two great days in life, the day you are born and the day you find out why. Some, like John, have been blessed to discover their purpose early in life. Certainly John’s life includes much more than just starting businesses, but he has been obsessed with health and diet for about 50 years. That flame obviously continues to burn. And that, above all else, will be the source of any success that Love.Life achieves.
(To learn more about the new venture, check out this excellent interview with John. Note that he is bringing along two of the best people who were at Whole Foods from the earliest days, Glenda Flanagan and Jim Sud. Maintaining long friendships and working with the best are additional Mackey hallmarks.)
I have been fortunate to know and learn from many entrepreneurs. John Mackey is one of those from whom we can all learn.
American Business History Center
LETTER FROM JOHN MACKEY, JULY 2023
I’ve been very busy since my retirement from Whole Foods Market last September 1st. While I’ve been doing lots of hiking and playing plenty of pickleball, the thing I’m most excited about is the co-creation of Love.Life with my former Whole Foods executives, Walter Robb and Betsy Foster. What is Love.Life anyway? In a nutshell: Love.Life is an integrated health and wellness company that makes lasting health and longevity attainable. The company unites the power of nourishing food, evolved medical care, and precision wellness therapies to promote healing, optimization, vitality, and community.
Love.Life aims to transform the lives of millions of people. The traditional medical system is fundamentally flawed, focusing on managing diseases and treating symptoms rather than fostering prevention and finding and reversing the root causes of disease. Studies show that 80% of chronic diseases can be prevented and reversed through diet and lifestyle changes, which are the focus of Love.Life’s philosophy and are rarely included in conventional treatment plans. Our long-term goal is nothing less than to transform the fundamental health and longevity of America and eventually the entire world!
How will we do this? We have two primary strategies. First, we will build out large one-stop comprehensive medical and wellness centers across the United States that will provide everything people need to nourish, heal, and thrive at the very highest levels. Our first flagship location, a 45,000-square foot space in El Segundo, CA (in the Los Angeles metro area), is scheduled to open next June. The space will include a healthy restaurant, fitness center (think yoga, Pilates, personal training, etc.), 3 pickleball courts, wellness center (think hot/cold recovery therapies, infrared sauna, breathwork, acupuncture, etc.), health spa services such as massage, and a medical center all under one roof! It will take us many years to locate and build Love.Life physical centers in all the major urban areas in our country, but we will eventually do exactly this–just as we did with Whole Foods Market.
Our second strategy has been to create a comprehensive digital offering that allows us to make an impact now. Our Love.Life Telehealth offering has board- certified medical doctors and wellness coaches, which allows us to potentially serve anyone anywhere in America right now, regardless of where you live. That means that Love.Life can help you become the best version of yourself—healthier, greater vitality, stronger immune system, optimal weight, sleep longer and deeper, better stress management, and increase both your healthspan and your lifespan. We want people to not only be able to live longer, but also feel as good as they possibly can for as long as they possibly can.
Love.Life’s virtual health optimization programs are now available to individuals across all 50 states and internationally, with three membership programs designed to support a range of health goals.
Our Healthy Lifestyle Program offers an entry-level option for individuals seeking to jumpstart their well-being and proactively maintain their health. It includes an assessment phase of two 30-minute appointments with a physician and a recommended set of labs to assess the individual’s baseline cardiovascular and metabolic health, as well as key nutrient and vitamin levels. Group health and wellness coaching, educational content, and quarterly follow-up doctor appointments are also included.
Our Longevity Program provides intensive, specialized care for specific health goals, including chronic disease reversal and proactive care for longevity. Under this program members receive:
A more intensive assessment phase of two 60-minute introductory doctor’s appointments with a detailed set of recommended labs and tests including nutrigenomics biological age and body composition.
Monthly 1:1 health and wellness coaching with unlimited messaging and at least one physician appointment quarterly.
Access to practical tools and exclusive educational content and advanced specialized assessments such as biological age, microbiome, continuous glucose monitoring, and body composition.
For the most comprehensive health and wellness care with assessments ranging from epigenetics and microbiome to cardiovascular and early cancer screenings, we also offer our Concierge Program. This program provides everything that our Longevity Program provides, plus it allows members unlimited access to their doctor and wellness coach within business hours, additional medical support outside of business hours if necessary, unlimited testing with no additional charges, and the highest level of care and support that Love.Life is capable of providing. Both Deborah and I have chosen to become members of Love.Life’s Concierge Program and we highly recommend it. I am very happy with the Love.Life doctor I have been working with over the past several months and I have seen my health and vitality significantly improve already.
To learn more about Love.Life’s innovative medical membership programs or to book an appointment with one of our licensed physicians, please visit love.life/telehealth/healthprograms.
I also want to let you know about some of the other things Love.Life can offer you or your family and friends. Love.Life has also acquired Mastering Diabetes, an established online coaching and education platform known for permanently reversing insulin resistance using food as medicine. If anyone you know is suffering from any form of Diabetes, please let them know about Love.Life’s Mastering Diabetes program – it has already helped thousands of people! We also recently launched Mastering Weight Loss and will continue to add specialized private and group coaching programs under our Mastering Programs service in the future. Cyrus Khambatta, PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry, and Robby Barbaro, MPH, co-founders of Mastering Diabetes, are now members of Love.Life’s executive team and lead the development of the company’s coaching services.
For more information about Love.Life’s Mastering Programs, including Mastering Diabetes and Mastering Weight Loss, please visit love.life/masteringprograms.
If you live in the Los Angeles area or are visiting there, please check out our Love.Life restaurant in Culver City: https://love.life/nourish/. We also operate Love Life Cafe in Miami, which opened its new location in February 2023 with expanded seating, a bar, and new menu items.
I have two asks from you today:
Please go on-line and check out our optimization membership programs https://love.life/telehealth/healthprograms/ and if you are interested in improving your personal health, then enroll in one of these programs.
Please pass this letter on to any of your friends or family members who you believe would also be interested in improving their health. If you are willing to make the investment, consider giving one of the Love.Life optimization memberships as a gift to someone that you love. Deborah and I are both giving memberships to some of our family members, who we think would be interested in improving their health.
I hope you are having a fantastic 2023! I wish for you perfect health, a long life, and great happiness!