The millionaire cofounder of Whole Foods says big business is the victim of unfair attacks and judgment despite being ‘the real value creators’ in the world

March 15, 2023, 4:44 PM UTC
"I always felt that business is misunderstood by society," John Mackey said during a presentation at the NEXT 2023 conference earlier this month.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg—Getty Images

Former Whole Foods CEO John Mackey recently is “muzzled” no more. And he’d like a little more credit for his business acumen, if you don’t mind.

“I always felt that business is misunderstood by society,” Mackey said during a presentation at the NEXT 2023 conference earlier this month, as first reported by industry publication Baking Business. “It’s hated by the intellectuals, but we are the real value creators in the world. We are the ones that are creating the prosperity that lifts everyone up. We’re not understood but judged and attacked.”

The businessman also listed out a few heroes during the conversation, including other businessmen like himself: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie are “some of the greatest people who ever lived because of the great value they created,” he reportedly said.

The comments come as little surprise to those who have followed Mackey’s career. In 2013, he published a book called Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business. In it, he and coauthor Rajendra S. Sisodia argue “for the inherent good of both business and capitalism.”

As of 2017 (Forbes‘s most recent data available), Mackey had a reported net worth of $75 million. He famously cut his own salary to $1 back in 2007. In the past, the libertarian has made waves for making provocative statements, such as that “socialists are taking over” and that “young people don’t want to work.” He came under fire for his views on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which he called “fascist.”

“Socialists are taking over,” Mackey said on libertarian magazine Reason‘s podcast last year. “They’re marching through the institutions. They’re taking everything over. They’re taking over education. It looks like they’ve taken over a lot of corporations. It looks like they’ve taken over the military, and it’s just continuing.”

He at least partially retracted what he said about the ACA, and recently said he regretted an oft-invoked comment he made about unions in the 1980s: “The union is like having herpes,” he said. “It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.”

“We now live in a time where we’re judged by every little mistake we might have made in our lives,” he said on the podcast Freakonomics in 2020. “Hey, listen, I have made plenty of mistakes. That was a mistake. I regret that. I wish I could un-say that. I didn’t mean to harm anyone. I meant to amuse people. And now it’s a scar.”

At the NEXT conference, Mackey also discussed his career at Whole Foods, which he cofounded in 1980. He retired as CEO of the grocery chain in 2022. For his next act, Mackey plans to start a chain of health restaurants called Love.Life!.

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