Whole Foods CEO John Mackey to Retire in 2022

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Whole Foods Market Chief Executive

John Mackey

will retire next year as head of the company he co-founded more than four decades ago in Austin, Texas.

Chief Operating Officer

Jason Buechel

will become the grocer’s next CEO when Mr. Mackey steps down on Sept. 1, 2022, the company said. Whole Foods Market has more than 500 retail and non-retail locations in the U.S., Canada and UK.

“Honestly, it’s very hard to retire from a company that I have helped to create, nourish and grow for 44 years,” Mr. Mackey, 68, wrote in a letter to employees. A vegan known for his casual style of dress, he helped popularize a shift toward healthy and organic food. 

Mr. Mackey started Safer Way Natural Foods in 1978 in a Victorian home in Austin, after he started and stopped college for six years, never graduating.  In 1980, in a partnership with two other local health-food store owners, he opened the first Whole Foods Market in the city. 

Whole Foods became a Fortune 500 company, going public in 1992. Mr. Mackey became a food celebrity. He shared the CEO title with

Walter Robb

from 2010 to 2016.

Whole Foods’ success pushed traditional grocery outlets and mainstream supermarkets like Kroger Co.,

Albertsons Cos.

, Walmart Inc. to offer organic produce and promote healthier choices. 

The competition caught up with Mr. Mackey. By 2017, sales at Whole Foods had slowed and profits were declining. Activist investors wanted to explore the possibility of a sale.  Amazon.com Inc.  bought the company for roughly $13.5 billion later that year. 

Mr. Mackey defined his relationship with the company as that of a parent and child, and referenced the point at which parents must let go and trust their children. “That time has nearly come for me and for Whole Foods,” he wrote.

Mr. Mackey said the decision to have Mr. Buechel replace him as CEO was a “personal choice.”

In 2018, some Whole Foods employees said they wanted to unionize to address what they say are changes to corporate culture and less compensation under Amazon. In addition, Whole Foods no longer offered stock options to lower-level staff. Whole Foods and Amazon have opposed organizing efforts in the past.

Last year, dozens of workers at Whole Foods Market stores across the U.S. skipped their shifts to call attention to demands for better pay and more safety measures to protect them during the Covid-19 pandemic. The company said operations were unaffected. 

Write to Talal Ansari at talal.ansari@wsj.com

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