Whole Foods' CEO says the company hasn't lost its identity, but likened the Amazon acquisition to a marriage: 'If you don't change, you're going to get a divorce'

Dustin Finkelstein/Getty Images for SXSWWhole Foods CEO John Mackey.
  • Whole Foods CEO John Mackey said the company’s acquisition by Amazon is like a marriage and that has led to some changes at grocery chain.
  • “I always use this analogy, when you get married, do you change? And the answer is, ‘duh.’ If you don’t change, you’re going to get a divorce,” Mackey said during an episode of Freakonomics Radio. “So, Whole Foods is changing, but not because Amazon’s cramming a bunch of things down our throat, but because they do a lot of things that we want to take in.”
  • Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017 for a reported $US13.7 billion. Mackey has described the deal as a “whirlwind courtship” and that it was “love at first sight” for the two companies.
  • The acquisition led to some immediate changes at Whole Foods, like deals for Prime members and sales of Amazon’s Echo device in stores.
  • In recent months, there have been tensions between workers of two factions of the business – Whole Foods and Prime Now shoppers – and Whole Foods employees have also been frustrated by a new, stricter dress code, which they feel points to a larger trend of Whole Foods’ culture shifting away from its roots.
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For Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, the company’s acquisition by Amazon was like getting married — and now, they have to try not to get divorced.

Mackey discussed the Whole Foods-Amazon relationship during an episode of Freakonomics Radio that premiered Wednesday. He said becoming an Amazon-owned company “hasn’t been as big a switch as you’d think” and that he was clear about Whole Foods’ mission and core values before it was acquired.

“Are we going to try to integrate those, or are you going to leave that alone? No, they weren’t going to try to change that,” Mackey said. “What about our culture? Are you going to try to assimilate us into Amazon and we will lose our identity? No, we don’t want to do that.”

Mackey said that Whole Foods has evolved since it was acquired by Amazon “but in a respectful way.”

“I always use this analogy, when you get married, do you change? And the answer is, ‘duh.’ If you don’t change, you’re going to get a divorce,” Mackey said. “So, Whole Foods is changing, but not because Amazon’s cramming a bunch of things down our throat, but because they do a lot of things that we want to take in.”

Whole Foods was acquired by Amazon for a reported $US13.7 billion in 2017 after what Mackey described in his new book, “Conscious Leadership,” as a “whirlwind courtship.”

The day after the deal was announced, Mackey told employees it was “love at first sight” when the two companies had met on a “blind date” six weeks prior: Mackey and Bezos and their teams had a three-hour meeting in Seattle in April 2017, which led to Amazon executives flying to Whole Foods’ headquarters in Austin, Texas, four days later to iron out the terms of the deal.

“We moved from dating to engagement to marriage in just a few short months,” Mackey writes in the book.


Read more:
Inside Amazon’s ‘whirlwind courtship’ of Whole Foods, as told by the grocery chain’s founder John Mackey

The changes to Whole Foods were apparent almost immediately after the acquisition. The company began selling Amazon’s Echo smart speaker in the aisles of the stores and cut prices across the grocery chain. By 2018, Amazon began offering discounts at Whole Foods for Prime members and made Whole Foods items available for Prime Now, the company’s delivery service.

But in recent months, tensions have risen between two factions of the business: Whole Foods employees and Prime Now workers who pack and deliver online orders. Whole Foods workers told Business Insider’s Hayley Peterson in September that while the grocery business has boomed during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s led to safety problems and overcrowding at Whole Foods stores.

“Team-member morale is the lowest I’ve ever seen it,” one employee told Business Insider. “Global” — Whole Foods’ corporate office in Austin — “keeps asking us for feedback, and we keep saying to them: Team members don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe from the virus, and they don’t feel safe from the customers. I have never seen so many people look so stressed and so afraid.”

And last month, Whole Foods announced sweeping changes to its employee dress code policy, which had previously been relaxed and allowed employees to express their individuality. Several Whole Foods employees told Business Insider that the stricter dress code pointed to a larger trend of Whole Foods’ culture shifting away from its roots: “Maybe Amazon is just very strict and wants everyone to look like robots and look the same way,” one employee said.

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