Around the Water Cooler With Whole Foods' CEO

Walter Robb shoves the corporate ladder under the table, just like his Brussels sprouts.

Walter Robb shoves the corporate ladder under the table, just like his Brussels sprouts.

Walter Robb


Second, you've got to support your trade association. We support the Organic Trade Association, and we started the Organic Center for Education and Promotion, which funds double-blind peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate the utility of the organic claim. If you're proactively starting, founding, joining or supporting organizations to help bring the customers more credible information, I think that's helpful to the dialogue.

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In April we declared for full GMO transparence by 2018. That's something Whole Foods led the market on. It's a combination of the leadership decisions and actions to demonstrate to your customers, and to the marketplace, that you're going to lead on these issues, as well as supporting, and in some cases, creating organizations that can more broadly cover these topics. What you don't do is turn into a shrinking violet. You engage in a robust dialogue.

It's also very much a partnership with your customers. They were very influential with me and on our team [concerning GMOs] because they wrote us thousands of letters and emails about how they felt, urging us to take a stronger stand. I do think you listen to your customers, you have an active dialogue with them and you learn from them.

Do you have any tips for busy working parents who want their families to eat healthy, but don't have time to cook every night?

First of all, we're Whole Foods, not holy foods, so leave the judgment at the door. It's really about starting wherever you are and taking whatever steps you can take toward a healthier life.

But just adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet, that's the No. 1 thing you can do. It turns out your mom was right about the veggies – vegetables are these powerhouses.

I think it's clear that the traditional American diet is killing the country. It's also become clearer that fresh, healthy foods — however you define them, including organic – that this is the way of the future. We have believed for almost 34 years that whole foods, with a small "w," are more healthy to individuals and communities than foods that are not.

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Do you consider yourself a good cook?

You know, I'm learning. Lately, I've been learning to make a few sauces, but I would consider myself a decent cook. If you came over for dinner I think you would be happy.

But there would be no Brussels sprouts, I'm assuming?

If you come over for dinner, I'm not fixing Brussel sprouts. No way.

Last question, what's the best career advice you've ever received?

One piece of advice is from my mom: "Have the courage to go and do what you believe." Most people can see things, but they don't have the courage to go do it and try something.

And this is a great piece of advice John [Mackey] gave me once: "When you're faced with a tough decision, make the one that excites you the most." I've drawn on that many times over the years.

Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.

Corrected on 08/23/2013: A previous version of this story misstated the revenue of Whole Foods Market.