Whole Foods CEO on Conscious Capitalism and Doing Business in Detroit

By Amanda Lewan on May 27th, 2015 / Comments

“When people say stuff can’t be done, they are wrong. It can be done,” said Co-CEO of Whole Foods Market Walter Robb about a New York Times article that called their plan to open a store in Detroit a bad idea.

Whole Foods first started as what Robb jokingly called a place for “hippy groceries” in Austin, Texas in the 1980’s. They’ve now been doing business in Michigan since 1993 with six stores across the state and more coming down the pipeline. They employ 1,300 people in the state. It has been two years since they opened their Midtown, Detroit location and the incredible growth of sales speaks for itself.

But it’s also a reflection of their philosophy, one that seeks to include the local food community.

“I want to take you a little bit deeper into our philosophy. We call it conscious capitalism, the idea that business exists to create a purpose in the world,” said Robb on stage at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. “We believe that businesses are built around stakeholders not just shareholders. You need to think more broadly about who is a stakeholder and make decisions to bring these stakeholders together.”

Robb said when they looked at opening in Detroit, they knew to begin with conversations first. They engaged the local community and learned everything they could before opening their doors. Robb attributes this to part of their success.  He estimates around 75% of employees they hired two years ago are still working with them today.

Their form of conscious capitalism includes valuing culture and people, allowing leaders to evolve and grow, and creating a sense of purpose for the company.

“If people have a sense of purpose, so should a company,” he said.

Below are three takeaways that Robb shared from opening their Whole Foods Detroit location.

3 Lessons Learned from Doing Business in Detroit

  1. There is a tremendous disparity of food access in our country. Detroit is no exception, but it is not a food dessert. The issue of accessibility to healthy food is in both urban and suburban areas. Robb cited that residents of city of Detroit have an estimated ten years less of a life expectancy then those in nearby Oakland County. Bringing healthy food to Detroit they viewed was a moral obligation to their company, but they also learned from the community and realized that Detroit is not a food dessert.
  2. When a company and a community are willing to set aside their differences and can re-imagine what the relationship can look like, you’ll see success. Whole Foods entered Detroit first with dialogue, engaging and listening to those in the community. Robb said it helped create respect between stakeholders, and helped Whole Foods learn a lot of great things already happening in Detroit. “Your job is to be part of it, to participate,” Robb said. “This made us look more at serving and supporting the local economy, re-imagining what’s possible between the company and the community.”
  3. Be culturally relevant as a company. There are many faces and ethnicity in our world. Robb said he believes the future looks more inclusive and companies have to be culturally relevant to all groups. Whole Foods strives to do so.

It was great to see a conversation on the food economy here at this year’s Mackinac Policy Conference. At Michipreneur we’ve been watching the local food economy grow. Entrepreneurs every few months are launching and growing food products available in many major grocery stores like Whole Foods, such Ellis Island Tea.

Stay tuned and we share more insights into growing businesses and economic issues in the state at this year’s conference.

*We’re reporting this week from the Blue Cross Blue Shield Blogger Zone at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Follow along tweets and stories with the hashtag #MPC15, and let us know questions or conversations you’re interested in most.

Photo via Whole Foods Detroit.

About the Author

Amanda Lewan

Amanda Lewan

Editor @michipreneur. Co-founder Bamboo Detroit. Follow me @Amanda_Jenn. I love telling the story of entrepreneurs and innovators.