Ripping up the rules of online behavior: Whole Foods CEO John Mackey

July 12, 2007, 2:54 PM UTC

When Business 2.0 featured Whole Foods (WFMI) CEO John Mackey in our “Ripping Up the Rules of Management” feature earlier this year, we focused on his contrarian compensation package. Turns out, though, he’s been ripping up some business communication rules on the Internet, too.

Mackey has admitted that, for about eight years, he posted on Yahoo (YHOO) Finance’s Whole Foods message board under the name “Rahodeb,” which seems to be a jumbled spelling of his wife Deborah’s name. In those posts Mackey extolled the virtues of Whole Foods stock, predicted that the stock would continue to perform well, bashed competitors, took short sellers to task, and even bet a rival poster that Whole Foods stock wouldn’t dip below $50 in 2006.

It’s that bet that brought Mackey’s online adventure to an end. (When the stock took a dive, he honored the bet and stopped posting.)

Perhaps none of these details would have come to light, except that Whole Foods is now trying to buy one of the competitors that Mackey bashed in a few of his online posts.

Whole Foods made an offer to buy rival Wild Oats Markets (OATS) for $565 million, or $18.50 per share, in February. Details about Mackey’s posts came out this week as part of a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission to block the acquisition on antitrust grounds; the FTC says the real reason Whole Foods wants to buy Wild Oats is to keep prices high.

What’s to learn here? Well, for those who weren’t aware, CEOs are human. Many of them live and breathe their businesses, they love the challenge of a good fight, and they like to talk – which is why many are surrounded by a protective cadre of PR handlers. Mackey’s online adventure is an example of what can happen when a CEO gets loose, gets contrarian, and feels anonymous. And its also an example of how even the best-connected executives with the benefit of inside information can’t guess which way the stock market will go. From Mackey’s last Yahoo post, on August 12, 2006:

This will be my final message on this bulletin board as I have lost my bet with hubris12000. Congratulations hubris! You win. I lose. I will honor the terms of our bet. The learning from this bet is to never underestimate the manic/depressive nature of Mr. Market. Whole Foods had a very strong quarter with same store sales up 9.9% on top of a 15.2% increase last year–phenomenal results. In addition EPS were up 27% over last year and the company beat earnings estimates by 3 cents. However, Mr. Market hit the panic button and the stock has crashed, down almost 40% from its high of just a few months ago. Whole Foods itself has a very bright future and I will continue to hold my stock for a very long time–until the growth begins to significantly slow. I’ve enjoyed my 8 years on this Board, but all things must come to an end. I wish everyone the very best.

Mackey’s chief message board rival hubris12000, who bested him in the bet, had this to say in a post yesterday:

I posted back and forth with Rahodeb and found him to be a gentelman and always professional. We disagreed, but politely, at least on his part, I swayed from time to time. I announced I was short, and he announced he was long and a believer.

So what. Let the man be…..At least he speaks his truth. He may have been wrong but he spoke his mind. That is more than you can say about most CEO’s.