Rooted in a mission to bring healthier, natural food to consumers, former Co-CEO and Founder Walter Robb did just that during his time at Whole Foods Market. Although his career took a different path when Amazon acquired Whole Foods in 2019, Robb will share the guiding principles that drove innovation and growth throughout his esteemed CPG career.
On this episode of the C to C podcast, we’ll explore company culture, the digitization of retail, brand management, and so much more. Since Whole Foods opened its doors in 1980, Robb and his team worked diligently to develop the right supplier relationships, invest in the best emerging brands, and embrace a new world food order. What advice does he have for food-and-beverage newcomers, as well as established organizations who want to expand throughout the United States? Listen to find out.
Walter Robb: The customer has digitized. In other words, the customer has, has accelerated their digital adoption by years. I mean, you know, maybe three to five years, depending if you listen to Satya at Microsoft or Carol Tomé over at UPS or Brian [Cornell] at Target. Everyone essentially acknowledges that these, the customers demonstrated a willingness and a desire to have these new options.
And so, as a result, you’ve got this massive wave of digitization running across the landscape, every bit affecting everyone.
Gary Nowacki: This is C to C, where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business from conception to consumption.
Welcome to the podcast, everyone. Today, I’m very excited to have as our guest Walter Robb. Walter has been co-CEO and board member of Whole Foods and spent a large chunk of his career building that company.
So we’re really excited to hear from him today. Walter, welcome to the podcast. Thanks so much.
Walter Robb: Gary. I appreciate it. Good to be with you.
Gary Nowacki: So Walter, for those of our listeners who don’t know your personal story and background, could you please walk them through that? You know, how you got into the food and the retail business and, and how things unfolded for you?
Walter Robb: Yeah, well, sure. Well, back in the Civil War…[laughter]. After the civil war, there’s a lot of gold miners and they needed food. No seriously, I’m not that old, but back in 1978, I started a natural food store. That was kind of at the beginning of this movement in our generation to a new to a new type of whole food with a small “w” and started a little store in a, in an old garage and ran that for 10 years.
I remember going over, driving myself to pick up the inventory for the first—spent $3,000 to pay for the inventory, got a little store and did $200 on the first day. Ten years later, basically sold that store started another one, sold that store to John Mackey, which was store number 12 for Whole Foods prior to it being coming public.
And, as you know, the rest of the store unfolded from there. We built together as a team, Whole Foods into a 16-billion-plus, almost-500-store company and sold to Amazon in the summer of 2017. So it’s really a story of a person, like many in my generation, who were looking for something meaningful to do.
Found their way to this thing called whole food or natural food, saw an opportunity to do food a little bit differently than the previous generation. [We] believed deeply, deeply in the power and the mission that, that it represented around—not just the health it could do for you as an individual, but the health it could do for the community and a healthier world.
Continue reading the transcript:
Walter Robb: And tried to bring that to fruition as part of a group that that built a company, which surely has been the honor of a lifetime to have been on that journey.
Gary Nowacki: It’s a great story. And I’ve heard several of your interviews and you frequently talk about mission and how important that is. So. as you were getting together and, you know, merging with John Mackey’s, you know, prior company and you two together and many others built Whole Foods—talk to our listeners about how mission mattered as Whole Foods really grew over the years.
Walter Robb: Well, it’s everything. I mean, on the, in the dashboard of life, there are questions and there are questions. And then there’s the questions that are really the questions behind the questions. And the mission question is really the question of “Why? Why are you doing this?”
“What difference does it make? What impact will you have? Why? Why do you exist even?” And I think, you know, that is the core question everyone must—it’s the ultimate differentiator. It has to come from the entrepreneur themselves. It has to come out of their being as to why this thing was started. And it has to be really genuine, authentic, and meaningful out there in the marketplace.
So, so many good intentions were well intentioned that could never form. It might be what they say a good idea, but not a good company, but in the case of Whole Foods, our mission in simplest terms was to bring healthier foods to the world and build a company based on love and respect.
As we grew and saw more and did more, that mission, which is a living thing, continues to expand as an enabler and as a facilitator, as an inspirer, to be able to see what’s possible for the company to do. So, it really, the purpose of mission is one to, to state clearly why you exist, what you’re here to do. And I heard once from my friend, Mike Milken, that of all the companies he financed over the years, less than 2% of the entrepreneurs said it was to make money.
98% of them said it was for some impact in the world. And I think that tells you a lot about the power of mission. But remember that it’s a living thing, remember that it continues to evolve as you evolve, which makes sense. And because it also is what functions like a force multiplier.
It draws people into the force of feeling like they’re part of something better, bigger than themselves. So, both internally, in terms of team members coming to work, and customers, in terms of wanting to associate or shop with a brand mission, is core to all of that.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm, mission gets talked about all the time with entrepreneurs, but something that these days maybe gets talked about even more is culture.
And certainly, the two are intertwined. They can overlap a lot, but yet they’re sort of different. Right? And so, Walter, how do you see mission and culture playing off each other in a successful business?
Walter Robb: Well, they’re absolutely different because what, you know, culture is the living Petri tradition, which the mission unfolds.
There was a quote I had—I don’t have it very many famous quotes. In fact, if I have any, but one was, I remember answering a question this way: “We’re not so much retailers [who] have a mission. We’re missionaries who, who retail.” And my point in saying it that way was that retail was the form factor in which we gave our mission life.
And in that same way, culture is the form factor in which you give your mission life. And culture is nothing more than how team members feel working for you and customers feel shopping with you. It’s the—it’s what’s in the air. It’s the, ‘How we do it around here.’ It’s the living petri. It’s where the humanity of a company lives.
And so, it’s how it feels. And so, it’s something that has to continuously be attended to, and in more mature companies checked on and invested in, through investing in things that… Through investing in culture through various trainings or teachings or in whatever form.
I mean, number one, it has to be that the leader themselves represent that culture. And so, there’s a no—there’s a consistency in the leader, speaking and acting. Second that the company itself has to make decisions that support the culture. Third, there has to be cultural practices. They’re different to every company that come organically from the experience of the company that are things that, you know…
I’ll give you an example that United Naturals has a thing called—it ‘s a little monkey type thing or something. They give this award away every—it’s a little doll you know, that’s worth $5 and they give it away every month to the team member who does, you know, who gives the most to the company. So, it’s a symbol, more of anything of the fact that they recognize the effort in the culture.
So, what are the cultural practices? And then finally how are you empowering team members to be able to actually make a difference themselves? Give them the room to move so that they can contribute to the—it’s a culture where there’s room for them to move and contribute to the unfolding of the company.
So, it’s a very rich topic, culture. One, we could probably do a whole recording on. But remember, despite all the books and everything, what it really is, is how people feel shopping with you and working with you. And that it’s alive, and that you’ve got to continue to tend to it like you would tend to a garden. And it becomes a lot easier to take withdrawals from there than it does to… And you’ve got to put deposits in there.
And you do that through your authenticity, through your actual decisions, through the way you show up, through the fact that you act in a way that’s congruent with your values.
Gary Nowacki: Hmm. Well said, like tending a garden. I’ve also heard the saying: “Culture is what happens when management is not in the room.” Do you find that to be a fair statement?
Walter Robb: Well, don’t like the separation between culture and management. I think that implies a sort of hierarchical structure that you know, you’re starting, you know, two bases behind. And I’d rather see it as something that emanates out from the joining of the two together and doesn’t imply that there’s a separation there.
It’s the common ground that brings all people together. And then the different folks go out with their different roles to make that happen. So, I think about company that way. So, but, you know, but given that your statement, I think you know, both parties—management and team members—everybody has a role to play.
And what I often say when I’m talking to companies is, to the team members, is say like, “Look, it’s not up to the management to make this a place where you want to work. It’s up to everyone here, which means you have to take responsibility as well. If you want a culture where you want to work, that means you also have the responsibility to act and to speak in such a way that’s resonant with the values and with the culture so that you end up having your—or partially responsible for owning, creating this culture.”
And so, you know, that seems to land well with people when they realize, “Oh, wow. I really do have something to say about the place it is that I work.” And if they get to the place where they try and they’re discouraged or they don’t feel like they can, that’s when you start to have problems in companies breaking apart.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. So, let’s talk for a moment about the industry, huge industry—food, consumer package goods. And along with that, we’ve all seen huge changes in this industry, in the past few decades, maybe even acceleration of change.
And so, with all of your knowledge and, and basis and experience in the industry, when you look forward, what do you view as some of the trends, especially long-term macro trends that you see out there and what guidance can you give to innovators who are trying to respond to those trends and trying to separate them from fads?
Walter Robb: Right. You know, as they say this, separate the signal from the noise. I think we should take a question later on and talk, dive deep into what innovation is so that we don’t just assume the definition of what it is. Because you know, if you look at it—the definition—you’ll find it comes from the Latin innovare, which means to renew or to redo, which means that you can find innovation… You can find innovation in something that already exists and just reimagine it as well as some idea of creating something that totally doesn’t exist. They’re both forms of innovation.
But if we—and I think the COVID has sort of brought that home in the sense that no one was expecting a black swan event that forced grocery stores to have to figure out how to serve people safely. And it wasn’t on the game plan for 2020, and yet it happened, and they had to, and they did, and they figured it out. So, it reminds people that you have to be prepared.
Sometimes innovation is forced on you as opposed to, “Okay. We’re going to write out an innovation plan.” So, we could dive more into any of that later, if you want to.
But when I look out at the market today, it’s clear that COVID has accelerated this on the overall customer side. It’s clear to me that the customer has digitized.
In other words, the customer has accelerated their digital adoption by years. I mean, you know, maybe three to five years, depending if you listen to Satya at Microsoft or Carol Tomé over at UPS or Brian [Cornell] at Target. Everyone essentially acknowledges that these, the customers demonstrated a willingness and a desire to have these new options.
And so, as a result, you’ve got this massive wave of digitization running across the landscape, every bit affecting everyone. As customers have said, they’re willing to do business in different ways. And so fundamentally going to market, you have to be able to go to market in in ways that are compatible with the increasing digitization.
With respect to retailing itself, it’s clear to me the future is hybrid. Because of the digitization that retailers/customers expect now to be met where they are and how they want to be met. They’ve been able to do that, so why wouldn’t they expect that from the brands that they choose to do business with?
It’s going to be that there is—it’s going to take hybrid forms. That is to say, you’re going to pick it up. You’re going to be able to deliver it. You’re going to be able to go to the store. And everything in between are ordered directly from the manufacturer. The retailing is going to take many forms.
And so, as you go into business as a retailer—a food retailer, as a grocery store—you’re going to have to open yourself up with strategies that are broader than they were when we just built a four-wall physical store. Because the grocery industry has moved far beyond the four walls.
It still has the four walls. But it’s much more than the four walls and those walls are wider and broader and made of digital airwaves.
I think third would be the food itself. We have basically had an agricultural system since World War II where modern chemicals and fertilizers came out of the war effort and have been formed an area of incredible production, efficiency, and productivity over the last, what is it? You know, 80 or 70, 80 years. Kind of reaching the end of the line in terms of what can be done from that system.
And at what’s been birthed alongside of it, starting with our movement in the late seventies and eighties is the natural, organic more sustainable food system, which has grown alongside and growing much more rapidly.
Both are there because the conventional production system is massive worldwide and shows no sign of slowing down, either on the demand or the supply side. It’s had disruptions from COVID, but it continues on demand. But you do have this emergence of the new. And out of that is coming incredible amount of innovation with respect to new diversity in food.
Because, as you know, we probably get 75 or 80% of our calories from 12 plants and five foods. And we now have, we’re going to have a whole new range of diversity of food that’s going to emerge over the next number of years for customers to choose from. And that’s going to include those that are done through technology and biology.
As well as going to be included from those that are discovered to have properties that we perhaps didn’t appreciate. So, you know, companies are unlocking the kind of dark matter of plants to find magical ingredients. We’ve seen this on the edge of the functional nutrient business, but it’s only going to explode into realizing, “Wow, these two types of foods are now available.”
So, we’ll see a revolution there as well as through technology. We’ll see the unlock of cell-based meat. And probably the biggest trend of all in this is plant-based whole foods, plant based. I have never—this is going be a half a trillion dollar market by 2040. This is going be, this is the biggest single consumer trend I’ve ever seen in all my years as a grocer, is the general move to plant-based foods.
Now folks are not one common folk, they’re going to move as they move. As they want to move and in the way in which they want to move. But this market of flexitarians who are saying, I want to do a little bit more plant based and are driving the, you know, the sales around Impossible and Beyond Meat.
This is going to explode. As a whole new range of choices come to market—and believe me, I’ve seen them—and as the capital markets are rushing into fund it, we are going to have a whole new generation of food that has a set of choices we simply didn’t have 10 years ago.
And then finally, the fourth thing I’d mentioned is simply that I think that the context in which that these trends unfold has changed and broadened with the arrival of these new generations, which expect more from brands, expect more from innovation, expect more from companies. Expect that there’s a linkage to a community, linkage to the people, linkage to making a better world and a better planet. Hold the companies and products to a higher standard of transparency and accountability and responsibility.
Expect those things, whether it’s a carbon footprint, a nutrient density or a flavor profile to basically meet a higher standard of responsibility for there being—for the right to get their support as a customer. I just think that is the way those companies embrace that are going to be the ones that win out there and are going to win with their innovation.
Those that do not will have a hard time gaining share. So you know, I think four is just to really recognizing how that context in which all this innovation is happening is so fundamental. And so this is, it’s rising the fuel of the ESG investment funds.
It’s rising the—it’s behind the rise of the customers trying all sorts to new ways of doing commerce. Whether it’s, you know, on social platforms, it’s driving their demand for products that have you know, have an answer at a higher level. How they’re made and those sorts of things.
So, I would say those are some of the major contexts and trends that are going to unfold for food and CPG over the next number of years. Let me just add one final thing I just thought of here. Which is number five—because I gave you four—is just that there is now a new appreciation for food in general.
Which is that food touches in a way that nothing very—it touches every aspect of human existence. It touches health, it touches community, it touches equity, it touches climate, it touches humanity. It touches everything! From the time we sit down at the dinner tables of family to the way in which food gets out into the community.
And so that there is now a new, particularly in COVID, as we’ve seen people cook at home, experience disruptions in food supply. It’s sort of akin to the Victory Gardens experience in World War II. People realized they had to step up and take more responsibility, but what’s happened—if you will—is kind of a renewed connection for people with food in general, not just for the sustenance it represents. But for the promise it represents in terms of building a more sustainable world.
And so, it’s really important to recognize, and you know, me being a whole foods guy with the small “w” coming back around to just truly appreciating what food is and what food does and what food represents and what a plate of food really means.
And I mean, I’m always—a good plate of fresh healthy foods is such an amazing experience. When you put the colors on the plate, when you cook it properly, when you grow it in your garden, when you realize, you know, it is actually happening. When you sit down at the table and experience food and how it allows you to continue to go on and do your work in the world.
I think we now have appreciated the food. We’ve also appreciated the workers who bring it to us every day in a way that perhaps we had taken for granted a couple years ago, that we don’t anymore.
So, I really, if you sit back and listen to this interview, I think these five areas are all things that provide the answer to your question of what lays ahead over the next number of years.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. Well, thank you. That’s it’s a lot for everybody to consider, but it’s very, very exciting. So, let’s talk for a minute about the folks who are entrepreneurs and in the startup situation with food businesses. We’ve had a lot of them on this podcast and they’ve told their stories and, of course, it’s tough to get through all the early-stage struggles, lots of different things folks need to work through.
But in many cases, you can really hear when people get excited about their stories when they feel like they’ve made it. When they’ve finally secured national distribution at a retailer, and some of our guests specifically talk about that retailer being Whole Foods. And you can just hear the emotion in their voice when that turning point or tipping point came.
So, what can you share? What was it like for you being on the other side of the table when you interacted with those entrepreneurs?
Walter Robb: You know listen, it—I’m well aware having taken many, particularly in the early days, many of those meetings myself that it represented a tremendous opportunity, but also responsibility.
And we actually were many years in before we got called by a supplier on the carpet. If you will saying, “You know, look, you’ve got these core values for all your stakeholders. You don’t have a core value for your suppliers. And, you know, we said, “You know what? You’re right.”
And we, and so we created one called win-win relationship with our suppliers and the whole thought was to be a brand partner. And it obviously for people to get placement in Whole Woods, it became a sign of acceptance in the natural food world—became a sign, a symbol of arrival.
And so I guess for me, one was—I would say three things. One was the great joy that it represented in that my personal mission and the mission of Whole Foods was to bring more healthier foods and the idea of healthy foods to the world, each product, one product at a time. The joy that came from seeing that actually happen and come alive over the years was, well, I don’t know.
It’s like when you feel your mission coming alive inside yourself, it doesn’t get any better than that. You will never find fulfillment like that. Like when you find it, feel like you’re actually living what you’re here to do. And I think for, for me individually, and for us as a company, the joy and the pleasure and the satisfaction we received in that.
Number two, I’d say would be the true appreciation for the supplier doing something that we couldn’t do, which was to create a product, you know, and all the trouble that it goes…
I mean, I’m not a brand guy; I’m a retailer. And I rely on the brands to come up with the ideas, to come up with the products, to do the work, to create their brand, to get their message out to com—and just an appreciation for the supplier partners and for the work that they had done. And often cases their stories, as you know from probably talking to others, are so rich and so individual and so amazing.
Like some people created it because they got into a health crisis. Some created because they had, they went on a travel trip and they saw something in the jungle that could be brought to the market. Some people did it just because they saw an opportunity to open up a new category. You know, that was the innovation.
Some saw a category that was stale that wanted to innovate in a category. It didn’t really matter, but for me, the ones that were most touching were those ones that had a, truly, a family story, you know with them in some way, shape, or form. And I say that because there was just the answer is really the appreciation for them.
And I think of someone. I think if I’m, I think of someone also like Grimmway Farms, Jeff Huckaby, and his team at Grimmway Farms. They are Organic Farmer of the Year in 2020, a conventional Farmer of the Year in 2019. Growing 83 crop—63 crops down in Bakersfield. They’re a large company, but the quality with which they take care of their soil, the way they think about their farming.
And so, it isn’t really about the size. We think about sometimes just small suppliers or big suppliers, but to them, the relationship with Whole Foods was critical to them drawing a baseline out there around their being able to accelerate their grow practices and impact the planet.
So appreciation was my second answer. My third one is responsibility. It’s like, it just doubled down on feeling like, whoa, this is really a responsibility. To be a true partner to this and to listen to their concerns, ‘cause things got screwed up from time to time. People felt like things were not being tended or there was too much bureaucracy or paperwork, or they couldn’t get a call back.
And you know, one of the themes in their Whole Foods—like we are Whole Foods. We’re not holy foods. You know, we are Whole Foods and therefore we are going to be partners. We’re going to call people back. Even if the answer’s no, we’ll call them back. So, it was just a continued heightened sense of responsibility to be a partner and not be a titan or a, not be a you know, a dictator, but to be a responsible partner.
Which meant honesty, which meant sometimes you had to tell people, “You know what? You’re not there yet.” Or, “No, or we can’t fit it in right now.” So, I would say those answers, the joy, the appreciation, and the responsibility.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I like the respect part as well. And you know, follow-up point on that for these food entrepreneurs who are looking to get their first national retail placement.
Any tips you can provide or recommendations on, you know, what their mindset should be and the approach they need to bring to their meetings with retailers and to their pitches?
Walter Robb: Yeah, well you know, the first thing—an expression my dad had comes to mind here is: Don’t ba baw when you can baw. And I probably sat through a million pitches, and you know, what my dad meant was, you know, make your case. But don’t make your case three times, you know, because then it just goes downhill.
So, the first thing is get your, you know, first thing is you got to have your story tight. You have your story tight in a way that is relevant for the retailer that you’re pitching to. Not everyone wants to know where you went to high school or, you know, what shoes you wore in fourth grade.
And I’m not making light of their stories, that’s all. But really, who is your audience? And get—and present in the context of, they’re sitting there thinking, “How will this product help my customers? How will this make my store better?” Present your story in their context of how you can help them to be a better retailer or serve their customers better.
Number two is you’ve got to have an all-in mindset. There’s no way in today’s competitive market that you’re going to win or succeed unless you’re all in. I mean, you can’t be halfway in. You’ve got to be all in, and people got to feel that passion and conviction and commitment that you have to what you’re bringing to the table. So, passion, conviction, commitment—that goes along with the context that you understand.
Third is I think recognizing that coming in and asking for something that’s unrealistic. Some people come [in like], “I want to go national tomorrow with Whole Foods.” Well, the fact is you’re actually not ready to do that. You’re not in a position to be able to support that brand.
But you don’t have enough boots on the ground. You don’t have enough resources to do the ads. Or promo. So, what is the—depending on your resources and where you are, you know, being willing to do this in reasonable stages or reasonable steps in a way that are thoughtful and that are supportable is, you know, finding that right pathway. You know, once you hit a certain… At Whole Foods, the cadence happens to be, you need to get in three regions and functioning before you can apply to become, you know, a national supplier to Whole Foods.
That’s kind of what’s been worked out. But you can certainly start as a local supplier working through the Forager network where you come in with your local story and you build a base of customers, you know, on the strength of a single region where you are and where you’re located and that story plays well.
Of course, in today’s market as a brand, you have option to go to market many different ways. You can go D2C [direct-to-consumer], you can set up a website. You can go with, you know, Amazon or Shopify. You can, there’s many ways for you to go to market that didn’t exist 10 years ago. And you certainly have to look at all those alternatives and perhaps do them all simultaneously going to market.
So, I think you need to have…knowledge of the modern market and how to play. And then I think, finally, just this idea of, you know, the modern skills necessary to be successful today.
And then I think finally it’s just the authenticity around your brand and, you know, don’t come selling snake oil—come with something that’s real. That really is innovative in whatever way you define that. That’s bringing true value to the marketplace.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. I’m here with Walter Robb, co-CEO and board member of Whole Foods. Walter, you talked a little bit previously in our conversation about innovation and the Latin definition of innovation.
You know, what can you share in your experience with innovation? Any particular viewpoints or stories on success versus failure that that you can share with our listeners?
Walter Robb: Yeah, well, they’re both, they’re—First, let me just say that I am the former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, as I did leave the company when we sold to Amazon and John is still there in that role.
So, just want to make sure that your listeners got the facts on that one. But clearly—look success. I was there close to 30 years, so it is in my blood and DNA. But clearly both success and failure are parts of innovation inclusive. If you haven’t tried hard enough—if you haven’t failed at all, then you probably haven’t tried hard enough as the old saying goes.
So, my experience with that—retailing at its core is from the French definition, a French word of retaillier, which means to recut the cloth. Which means that the essence of the craft of retailing is constant experimentation, constant change, constant fiddling around.
Think about it. You put produce out on the floor, you move it around, you try different places. If it doesn’t sell, you try different things. And so it’s not like you do it and then you arrive and that’s it. You’re constantly fiddling with it.
Every new store at Whole Foods, we try to bring some new experience to the customer. So, failure is a way to learn. Failure’s an opportunity to learn.
Failure could be a failure in the short-term sense, and not a failure in that it leads to a longer-term success. Example for you—in the Berkeley store one day, the bakery case, which was all-service bakery, the glass broke. The refrigeration company couldn’t come out in time. So, we wrapped the bakery and, and voila, what was born was self-service bakery.
And you know what? It worked. Customers were willing to get this stuff themselves, but it just came out of—necessity’s the mother of invention, right? So, I think it’s a matter of, are you paying attention? One of the things that’s clear to me for success today is the ability to be creative and agile, your agility and your creativity.
Are you able to respond to a situation you can’t anticipate or didn’t know? And not get blown up, but have some ability to respond and adjust and be agile with that? That defines successful leaders today. And as part of innovation is rolling with it, moving with it, growing with it, changing with it, adding to it. Like that is really how you respond to what is presented and what comes up that is going to make the difference between your success and failure.
So yeah, there’s a, you know, there’s both in it. And again, remembering that it comes from not only things that are already that are already out there, which is the innovare definition. Reimagining something that exists, as well as creating something new. It—both are true. And so, make sure folks don’t limit, you know? And I think the other thing is that remembering that things like the COVID can happen and, and even though it wasn’t in your plan… Do you have the capacity to respond to a situation you may not have anticipated?
What’s your game plan [that] you’re going to pull out when something comes up like that? And by the way, one last resource. There’s a little book called Little Bets by Peter Sims, which I just started reading. It says how breakthrough ideas emerge from small discoveries. It’s a good read on the idea of not betting the ranch on innovation but doing lots of little bets out there and scaling them up as you go to see which ones look like they have the potential to really get.
Gary Nowacki: Hmmm, Little Bets, I’ll have to check that out.
Walter Robb: By Peter Sims. Mm-hmm.
Gary Nowacki: So, for people who are wondering, do I have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur? Anything more you’d say about them doing sort of a mental check on, you know, the mindsets and the qualities and the talents that you think are needed or characterize a top innovator?
Walter Robb: You want to try to line up with your own purpose, so that the depth of your purpose comes through and the depth of your product—that there’s a lineup there between who you are and what you’ve created. You know, that’s also, we’ve talked about the need for agility and creativity. Those have never been more premium in a successful entrepreneur and innovator now than they are. Based on everything we’ve seen over the last year.
And, you know, I mean, I guess for me, I’d add one more, which is just around integrity. It’s like at the end of the day, you’ve got to, you know, who are you and, and how do you show up and how do you conduct yourself?
And, for me, that’s core to anything that you’re going to do. If you can’t do it and do it in integrity with yourself and with the world, then why would you be doing it? So, but that’s my particular combination. Others may have it/see it differently.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm. we’ve talked a little bit about the tremendous acceleration of change and all the opportunities in the food space right now.
What do you think some of the biggest challenges or speed bumps are that are out there?
Walter Robb: Well, the fact that the pace of innovation has picked up so dramatically that there’s a lot of stuff flying around that, you know, maybe hasn’t been tested or checked. Or, you know, is rushing to market.
There’s a lot of “me too” product out there. There’s a lot of—the speed of it all doesn’t allow the same pace. The same pace of examination that’s typically happened. So, we’re running a lot of experiments concurrently here. I don’t know that’s a bad thing, but it’s just a fact that things are moving at a two X speed right now.
And that in some cases the innovation is running ahead of consumer adoption. So, we don’t yet know, for example, what the customer’s going to do with cell-based meat or some of these new forms of plant-based foods. We don’t know because it’s not at market. We know that they’re developing, and we just don’t know what the customer’s going to do with them.
So, the challenges in some ways you’re flying blind until you get out there and see how the customer’s going to actually respond to your story. So, I would just say it’s maybe that gap that exists between the pace of innovation on the supply side and where the innovation is on the sell side, on the customer side.
Gary Nowacki: So, looking back across, you know, your esteemed career, what can you share with our listeners? Are there any things you might have done differently if you had the chance to do over?
Walter Robb: Well, you’re very kind to say esteemed. Who knows if that’s true? But it was it was definitely blood, sweat and tears and, and proudly given. I think, you know, one is you realize at the end of the day, that business is about people and that in the real value in the business is people and relationships.
And I would say to the team always you know, we’re, I don’t want to be in the transaction business. I want to be in the relationship business. I want us to build relationships with customers and with each other. And so, I think, you know, I think you learn as a type A driven leader. You’re pounding on every detail, pushing people hard.
Let’s get going, let’s do this. And I think in the end you realize that the real joy in leadership is creating space for others to grow and contribute. And I think I would’ve learned the proportions earlier. It might have been helpful to me in terms of being a different sort of leader. That one that balances my ability to push with my heart and compassion.
So, that’s definitely a lesson learned that I was grateful to have learned from my time in Whole Foods. And in terms of other things done differently, I guess the only other area really is truly understanding what it means to be part of a team. On a couple of occasions, I—you know, in my interest of speed, I went around somebody on a team that I was part of at the executive level and that boomeranged back, as it should have.
And I learned that being part of a team means that you let go of having to do everything yourself and you trust your teammate to do it. And so, I learned that lesson a couple of times and now have a true appreciation for what team really means as a result of those experiences.
Gary Nowacki: Thank you for sharing those.
And let me ask now, what can you share with our listeners on what’s next for you?
Walter Robb: Well, you mean what’s now for me, right? Cause I’m here with you right now. I’ve got to finish this podcast before I can do anything else. So, but and we want to give a shout out to Mercedes for all her help in setting this up. So, thank you, Mercedes.
Well, what I’ve been doing now is—I would say you know, I take great joy and I think all older people. I’m 67 years old now, so getting along, but decided that the real joy comes from—and joy is my word for 2021—is to stay connected to the younger generation who there’s, they, can see way farther along than we can.
And it’s really an honor and a pleasure to work and support them. They want wisdom and ideas around culture and things we’ve talked about today. I want the benefit of what they see out there and how they understand tools natively in ways that I don’t. And so, in that sense, I’ve been working with a number of companies to help them in their journey.
I work part-time as an executive and residence at S2G Ventures based in the West Loop of Chicago. There are specifically a venture firm based on food and ag companies in the sustainable food space. So I, do that. I serve on some boards. I do some speaking and I work with individual companies.
So it’s a full plate with many things on it. Which is very different than the 30-year chapter at one place. But it is still enriching, nonetheless.
Gary Nowacki: So Walter, I ask all of our guests the same question and it’s on advice. What would, what advice would you give to two different sets of folks?
First, innovators already in the food space and, second, new people just starting their career in this space.
Walter Robb: Yeah, well again, we’ve talked about a lot of this in the course of the conversation, but those that are in that I would say you are, you have—you are in the right place. There’s nothing, there’s no other place.
It’s pretty hard if you’re in it, you know, at the speed at which the world is moving now to change lanes into another and start selling elevators or fixing, you know, whatever. It’s you know, I think you, if you’re really feeling your heart in it, just keep going. And there is more opportunity opening here than I’ve ever seen ever in my life.
And I was there at the beginning, and I’ve never seen more opportunity than exists right now to develop, if you will, the new food world order is what I’ve been calling it. And so, check your dashboard. If you’re in the right place, then power on and, and opportunity will continue to open up.
With respect to those that are just joining, welcome and understand that we’re about much more than food. We’re about all the responsibility and the possibility that food represents because it is so basic and necessary for human existence.
It’s really an opportunity to touch people in so many different ways, whether it’s the story you’re telling, the company you’re using, the country you’re sourcing from, the ingredient that you’re using, the process you’ve chosen, the benefit that it represents to people.
You know, so I think—but all in the end, it comes back. You have to want to be in this particular business. And if you are, the world’s your oyster, so to speak.
Gary Nowacki: Mm-hmm good advice. Walter, before we go into wrap up, any other comments or things you’d like to point out for our listeners?
Walter Robb: No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve covered a lot of ground here and I appreciate your making the time to have this conversation. I thought that your questions were really good. And I think, as I reflect back on it, I think the context around the five ideas I shared with you about where we are at this point in time. I think it’s important for people to recognize we really are at a meaningful pivot point here.
That word gets overused, but this is truly a moment of change. We stand at the top of the mountain, looking at a new generation of food, a new generation of food systems, a new generation of food is perceived. And in that sense, it is a moment in time compared to all the years that we’ve been working to get to the mountain top.
Gary Nowacki: Very, very exciting time. And I agree wholeheartedly that that’s where we’re at. I want to thank my guest today, Walter Robb, who is the former co-CEO and board member of Whole Foods.
Walter, thank you so much for being on the podcast.
Walter Robb: My pleasure to be with you.
Gary Nowacki: Thanks for listening to C to C, where we cover innovation in the food and CPG business from conception to consumption.
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This podcast is produced for informational purposes and does not constitute any scientific, legal, or medical advice.
The views and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are those of the guest alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and positions of the host or any other entity or organization. Listeners are encouraged to listen with an open mind and form opinions of their own.
This podcast originally aired on February 11, 2021.