RALEIGH — At times Whole Foods Market co-CEO John Mackey sounds like a hardboiled Ayn Rand acolyte, extolling businesspeople as John Galt-like heroes and dismissing intellectuals as eternal enemies of business.
At other times, Mackey espouses the counterculture ideals of his sustainability-minded customers. He believes corporations should be imbued with caring, compassion and a conscience, and he roundly rejects the free-market axiom that the sole purpose of a business is to maximize profits.
Mackey found a receptive audience in Raleigh on Monday during a promotional stopover for his new book, “Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business.” The book outlines Mackey’s philosophy of a humanitarian brand of capitalism that he predicts will redefine corporate life in the 21st century.
“Ultimately this book is aimed at millennial entrepreneurs,” Mackey told an audience of several hundred people. “To a certain extent I have given up on my own generation.”
The event, hosted by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, was held in a packed conference center at WakeMed Hospital.
After his talk, Mackey said Whole Foods, with about 340 stores nationwide and five in the Triangle, expects to expand in North Carolina, largely by building new stores that specialize in upscale fare and organic selections. The company’s biggest competitor in this area, he said, is Harris Teeter, but nationwide it’s Trader Joe’s.
Mackey embodies business principles that/ many eye suspiciously as paradoxical if not incompatible. He’s a vegan and a libertarian, a socially conscious advocate and a free-market capitalist, the CEO of a publicly traded company and an unguarded public speaker who recently apologized for his description of the Affordable Care Act as “fascism.”
He heaps scorn on intellectuals who regard capitalism as inherently exploitative, even though Mackey himself is a critic of predatory business practices. Some in the audience said they admire Mackey as an entrepreneur-intellectual and a showman.
Among Mackey’s recurring themes is that capitalism is the single greatest force for good that civilization has ever devised. He says conscious capitalism represents the continuation of that benevolent course. The company of the future will serve its shareholders, employees, customers and community in equal measure, Mackey said, rather than redistributing benefits to shareholders from other stakeholders.
Mackey credits capitalism for launching a revolution that has led to abolishing slavery, extending voting rights, rolling back poverty, virtually wiping out illiteracy, curtailing discrimination, and elevating the living standards for much of humanity.
“We’ll probably wipe out poverty and illiteracy in the 21st century,” Mackey predicted, based on a pattern he says capitalism has sustained.
What follows are excerpts from his presentation.
“Business is under attack in America. I’m going to be up-front about it.”
“Business has always been disliked by intellectuals. They portray businesspeople as greedy, selfish and exploitative.”
“I can tell you as long as I’ve been on this tour I’m often on trial for heresy.”
“Business has been uplifting humanity out of poverty.”
“We’re the heroes because we’re the value creators.”
“Business creates prosperity, it creates wealth.”
“The most philanthropic people in the world are businesspeople.”
“You’re the heroic individuals who are helping humanity to wake up.”
On government regulation:
“America’s prosperity is declining because our economic freedom is declining.”
“The most troubled industries are the most regulated.”
On Wall Street:
“The investor stakeholder is the easiest to work with. The investors have given Whole Foods the least amount of grief. So I just ignore the short-term pressures.”
“When the stock is going up, the investors think they are all geniuses and Warren Buffetts. When the stock goes down, they think the CEO is the village idiot.”
“We need a different kind of leadership philosophy in the 21st century. Traditionally, people are motivated to go into leadership roles for two reasons: money and power.”
“We need leaders who have a higher degree of emotional intelligence and spiritual intelligence.”
“We need servant-leaders.”
On conscious capitalism:
“My body makes red blood cells, and if it stops, I’m a dead man. But the purpose of my life is not to produce red blood cells. I have a more transcendent purpose.”
“Love has been in the closet in corporate America because that kind of thing is seen as a weakness.”
“We need to create organizations that are fully human.”
“If you look for tradeoffs, you’ll find them. Conscious capitalism looks for synergies.”
“If it’s such a good idea, how come everyone’s not doing it? They’re not doing it because they’re not conscious yet.”
“These ideas are going to spread. Do you know why? Because they work better. If it doesn’t help your business to flourish then this is nothing but idealistic poppycock.”
On Whole Foods:
“This is my intellectual gift to the world.”