Activist Investor May Pressure Whole Foods to Sell Itself

Apr 10, 2017

Whole Foods Market's (wfm) chronic underperformance has come back to bite it.

Activist investor Jana Partners has taken a 9% stake in the upscale grocer, making it Whole Foods' second largest investor, and will push it to accelerate its turnaround and consider selling itself, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The report sent Whole Foods' shares up 9%, giving the company a stock market value of nearly $11 billion. "Whole Foods Market welcomes investment in the Company and is open to the views and opinions of all of our shareholders,"a Whole Foods spokeswoman told Fortune in an e-mailed statement.

According to the Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, Jana has lined up a slate of potential board nominees with the deadline to launch a proxy fight still four months away, giving the investor ample time to pressure Whole Foods to make the changes it is advocating.

The news comes as Whole Foods struggles to end a bad spell: its same-store sales fell 2.5% in its most fiscal year. The Journal said Jana would pressure Whole Foods to update its technology more quickly, shake up its board of directors and test the waters to see how much it might fetch in a sale. Whole Foods CEO John Mackey acknowledged in February the need to speed up its adoption and use of "data-rich, customer-centric category management" to improve merchandising and pricing. The company ended its co-CEO management setup at the end of last year.

Whole Foods, long a Wall Street darling, has seen shares fall by roughly half since an all-time high in October 2013, hurt by more aggressive competition from the likes of Kroger (kr) and Walmart (wmt) among many others and the pressure of falling food prices. All grocers have also had to contend with growing competition from Amazon.com Inc and meal kit providers likeBlue Apron.

In its most recent earnings report, Whole Foods said it would close some stores and increase use of customer data, as well as cut its full-year sales and profit forecasts, hit by its sixth straight quarter of same-store sales declines. Whole Foods, long derided as "Whole Paycheck" by many for its premium prices, also said in February it would lower prices. It is still refining its discount '365 by Whole Foods Market' chain.

Jana has at different points in recent years taken stakes in companies as varied as Barnes & Noble (bks), Tiffany & Co (tif), Qualcomm and Twitter in bids to impose change corporate management aimed at lifting shares.

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