Yet another CEO of a large retail establishment is compelled to walk back disparaging comments regarding a matter of public policy. John Mackey, co-CEO of organic products retailer Whole Foods, is as you read this expressing regret somewhere in the media sphere for his comparison of Obamacare to fascism. He joins a growing Who’s Who list of CEOs, including John Schnatter, Zane TankelI and John Metz, who have given customers a reason to reconsider their patronage of certain fast food and retail establishments. I would not be surprised if the other co-CEO of Whole Foods is at this very moment chuckling with delight – privately of course.
To be sure, our First Amendment gives anyone – from the maintenance apprentice to the Chairman of the Board – the right to spout off on whatever issue they care to, with whatever opinion they care to have. But the First Amendment protects none of us from any repercussions of exercising that right as long as those repercussions – from vituperative responses on message boards, to employment termination, to boycotts – are within the law. The repercussions to Whole Foods might be significant. I don’t know what the correlation is between people who spend a premium for organic products and people in favor of Obamacare, but I don’t think that Mr. Mackey was armed with a market study answering that question before he offered his opinion. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if a significant percentage of the Whole Foods customer base would in fact be in favor of a single-payer health care system. Perhaps Mr. Mackey came to that realization by himself. Or maybe a peer, or a member of the Whole Foods board of directors, or his spouse, or a golf buddy or – heaven forbid – a customer sent him a message along the lines of “WTF were you thinking?!?!”
When Isaiah Thomas disparaged Larry Bird back in 1997, one could possibly hear the sound of endorsement money evaporating. No doubt his agent was fighting the urge to hurl himself – or perhaps just Isaiah Thomas – in front of the nearest train. Are the leadership of Appleby’s, Whole Foods, Papa Johns and other businesses trying to tell the world that they are actually no smarter? I don’t understand how otherwise bright, educated and talented people would be so oblivious to the likelihood that their customers also happen to be voters, that as many as half of them might just have a different opinion about a particular issue and that they might not appreciate disparaging remarks about their opinion from someone who wants their money. I’m amazed that those business leaders miss the fact that most of their customers are spending money that they’ve earned from working and if the CEO says screw health care for his employees, at least some of his customers might feel at least a twinge of empathy for those screwed over employees and a healthy bit of resentment for him as a business leader. Are corporate leaders so cocooned inside bubbles of ignorance guarded by legions of sycophantic underlings that they actually think whatever is rolling around inside their heads should be accepted as gospel by the rest of the world?
I have always felt that the “say nothing” or “do nothing” option is highly underrated. Mr. Mackey has provided another bit of anecdotal evidence that such an option should be given far greater consideration by business leaders who deign to be even remotely interested in what their customers might be thinking.