Former Whole Foods exec talks shop in River Forest

Rotary hosted former CEO Walter Robb at Thatcher Pavilion

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

On Jan. 10, at Thatcher Woods Pavilion in River Forest, the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club was among three area Rotary clubs to host Walter Robb, the former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market. Robb was interviewed by Hermene Hartman, founder and editor of N'Digo magazine.

Before the roughly hour-long talk, Robb and Hartman both received Paul Harris Fellow recognition — a high honor established in 1957 that acknowledges people "who contribute, or who have contributions made in their name, of $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International," according to rotary.org. 

During the conversation, Robb said that he started out dealing in whole foods (little 'w') before he got involved with Whole Foods. 

"I started reading some books by author Frances Moore Lappé, and in college I started making my own bread," he said. "It was a time during and after the Vietnam War, when people were thinking about our generation making a mark in the world. That's how we came into whole foods — whole foods with a small 'w' not a big 'W.' Whole foods are healthier for you and the world."

Robb said he got into the business of selling food after realizing that he wasn't exactly a master gardener. 

"After I taught for a year, I farmed for a year. I wasn't very good at it," Robb said. "I told myself, maybe I'd be better at selling my own food rather than trying to grow it. So, I decided to open my own natural foods store. 

His first store, called Mountain Marketplace, was financed in part by a $10,000 loan from Robb's stepfather, after his dad turned down his request.

"I tell that story because when somebody believes in somebody like that, there's real power in that," Robb said. "I paid him back in Whole Foods stock, so it was a pretty good deal for him. I put $3,000 in inventory in that store. Put a wood stove in and a plywood sign that said 'open' and I did $200 my first day in 1978." 

Robb said he sold Mountain Marketplace in 1987 before opening another store, which he sold in 1989 to Whole Foods founder John Mackey 

"That store was store number 12 for Whole Foods," Robb said. "The rest is history. By the time we sold to Amazon, we had more than 475 stores."

Robb said that the Whole Foods culture of "inclusion and empowerment" was a major driver of that swift growth.

"A company grows fast, because you trust your team to serve your customers," Robb said. "Every team member was a literal owner. I had team members come up to me and say, 'Thanks so much for the stock options. I just bought my mother a house with your stock.' They weren't just team members, they were owners."

Robb, 65, exited his position as co-CEO in 2016, but remains on the company's board. He lauded Amazon's nearly $14 billion purchase of Whole Foods in 2017. 

"Now, Whole Foods gives you the option," Robb said. "Do you want to get [groceries] from the store? Do you want to get [them delivered to your] home? Do you want to pick them up? Do you want just some shipped to your house? You can mix and match any way you want." 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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