ONTD Political

John Mackey with the climate change deniers, well meaning yuppies cry into their soy milk

9:14 am - 01/05/2010
http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/01/04/100104fa_fact_paumgarten?currentPage=all#ixzz0baVWuHq0


Food Fighter

Does Whole Foods’ C.E.O. know what’s best for you?

by Nick Paumgarten January 4, 2010

 
 

John Mackey at a store in Austin, Texas. To “the people that really dislike us,” he says, “Whole Foods is a big corporation, so they think that we’ve crossed over to the dark side.” Photograph by Dan Winters.

 

John Mackey, the co-founder and chief executive of Whole Foods Market, refers to the company as his child—not just his creation but the thing on earth whose difficulties or downfall it pains him most to contemplate. He also sees himself as a “daddy” to his fifty-four thousand employees, who are known as “team members,” but they may occasionally consider him to be more like a crazy uncle. To the extent that a child inherits or adopts a parent’s traits, Whole Foods is an embodiment of many of Mackey’s. A Whole Foods store, in some respects, is like Mackey’s mind turned inside out. Certainly, the evolution of the corporation has often traced his own as a man; it has been an incarnation of his dreams and quirks, his contradictions and trespasses, and whatever he happened to be reading and eating, or not eating.

A year ago, Mackey came across a book called “The Engine 2 Diet,” by an Austin, Texas, firefighter and former professional triathlete named Rip Esselstyn. Basically, you eat plants: you are a rabbit with a skillet. Mackey had been a vegetarian for more than thirty years, and a vegan for five, but the Engine 2 book, among others, helped get him to give up vegetable oils, sugar, and pretty much anything processed. He lost fifteen pounds. This thinking about his body dovetailed with a recession that left many shoppers reluctant or unable to spend much money on the fancy or well-sourced food that had been the stores’ mainstay. Mackey, in a stroke of corporate transubstantiation, declared that Whole Foods would go on a diet, too. It would focus on stripped-down healthy eating. Fewer organic potato chips, more actual potatoes. He told the Wall Street Journal in August, “We sell a bunch of junk.”
The repudiation was rash, since Whole Foods would still be selling junk, of a kind. Mackey, an unrepentant foot-in-mouther, as often a fount of exasperation as of inspiration, tried to explain that his comment had been misunderstood. Mackey has been bewildered by the way some things that he has said or done have brought trouble on him and Whole Foods. Public opinion can be capricious and—when you’re a grocer, a retail brand, and a publicly traded company—hard to ignore or override.
Two years ago, Mackey passed through one of the roughest stretches of his life. The Bush Administration, in an uncharacteristic spasm of antitrust vigilance, was fighting Whole Foods’ purchase of a competitor, Wild Oats, contending that the merged company would unfairly corner what the Federal Trade Commission called the “premium natural and organic supermarket” sector. Meanwhile, the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating Mackey: for nearly eight years, he had been secretly logging onto an Internet message board devoted to Whole Foods stock under the sock puppet, or pseudonym, “rahodeb” (an anagram of Deborah, his wife’s name), praising his own company, disparaging Wild Oats, and throwing in a flattering remark about his hair (“I think he looks cute!”). Mackey, for years a media and stock-market sweetheart, was suddenly recast as a monopolist, a fruitcake, and a sneak. The share price fell, and, even though the government eventually let the deal stand (with a few concessions from Whole Foods) and gave the sock puppetry a pass, many wondered how Mackey managed to hold on to his job.
 
During this period, Mackey sought succor in spiritual practice. He engaged a friend, a follower of the Czech transpersonal psychologist Stanislav Grof, to guide him through a therapeutic session of holotropic breathing. “I had this very powerful session, very powerful. It lasted about two hours,” Mackey said in an inspirational CD set he released last year called “Passion and Purpose: The Power of Conscious Capitalism.” “I was having a dialogue with what I would define as my deeper self, or my higher self.” He had a pair of epiphanies, one having to do with severed relationships that needed healing. The other was that “if I wanted to continue to do Whole Foods, there couldn’t be any part of my life that was secretive or hidden or that I’d be embarrassed [about] if people found out about it. I had to let go of all of that,” he said. “I’m this public figure now.”
He couldn’t “embarrass the company,” he told me. “I have to grow up”—he is fifty-six. “I can’t have affairs with women. One of the things that happened was you have more money and you have more opportunities for such things. And those are sort of off-limits. You can’t do that. Think of Mark Sanford, in South Carolina.”
His vows of discretion apparently allow for a great deal of latitude. He talks openly about his fixations and eccentricities—most of them, anyway. (“I am not going to talk about my sex life,” he told me, without my having asked him to.) His blend of guile and guilelessness is peculiar. “I no longer drink alcohol around journalists,” he said. He worries that he reveals too much. He can’t help but speak his mind, out of which spring confounding ideas and conventionally irreconcilable contradictions. The man who has perhaps done as much as anyone to bring the natural-foods movement from the crunchy fringe into the mainstream is also a vocal libertarian, an orthodox free-marketer, an admirer of Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and Ayn Rand. In the 2008 Presidential election, he voted for Bob Barr—Ron Paul wasn’t on the ballot.
The right-wing hippie is a rare bird, and it’s fair to say that most of Whole Foods’ shoppers have trouble conceiving of it. They tend to be of a different stripe, politically and philosophically, and they were either oblivious or dimly aware of Mackey’s views, until the moment, this summer, when Mackey published an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal asserting that the government should not be in the business of providing health care. This was hardly a radical view, and yet in the gathering heat of the health-care debate the op-ed, virally distributed via the left-leaning blogs, raised a fury. In no time, liberals were organizing boycotts of Whole Foods. (Right-wingers staged retaliatory “buy-cotts.”) Mackey had thrown tinder on the long-smoldering suspicion, in some quarters, that he was a profiteer in do-gooder disguise, and that he, and therefore Whole Foods, was in some way insincere or even counterfeit. No one can say that he hasn’t brought it on himself.
“I have my own views, and they’re not necessarily the same as Whole Foods’,” Mackey told me. “People want me to suppress who I am. I guess that’s why so many politicians and C.E.O.s get to be sort of boring, because they end up suppressing any individuality to conform to some phony, inauthentic way of being. I’d rather be myself.”
“He’s a ready-aim-fire guy, and he’s not real disciplined in how he speaks his mind,” Gary Hirshberg, the C.E.O. of Stonyfield, the organic milk and yogurt producer, told me. “He has a really hard time reconciling his public and private selves.” Mackey’s resilience has surprised even those who, like Hirshberg, hold him in high esteem. “John has that Clintonesque ability to hang in there,” Hirshberg said. “He is Whole Foods management’s greatest asset but also, at times, its greatest challenge.”

Depending on where you are on the spectrum of epicurean cultural politics, you may consider Whole Foods to be a righteous grocer or a cynical con, a prod to self-improvement or a gateway to decadence, a neighborhood boon or a blight, a force for social good or a place to pick up chicks. To the likes of Wal-Mart and Costco, it has been an impetus to carry healthier, more judiciously sourced food. To small neighborhood natural- or gourmet-food shops, it has sometimes been an impetus to go out of business. It has enabled organic and artisanal producers to scale up, and put pressure on the giants to at least pretend that they are scaling down. It has less than a one-per-cent share of the American grocery market, yet it has unquestionably transformed the way Americans produce, buy, and eat food. Its name, justifiably or not, is shorthand for a food revolution.

To some, Whole Foods is Whole Paycheck, an overpriced luxury for yuppie gastronomes and fussy label-readers. Or it is Holy Foods, the commercial embodiment of environmental and nutritional pieties. To hard-core proponents of natural and organic food, and of food production that’s local, polycultural, and carbon-stingy, Whole Foods is a disappointment—a bundle of big-business compromises and half-steps, an example of something merely good that the perfect can reasonably be declared an enemy of. It’s a welter of paradoxes: a staunchly anti-union enterprise that embraces some progressive labor practices; a self-styled world-improver that must also deliver quarterly results to Wall Street; a big-box chain putting on small-town airs; an evangelist for healthy eating that sells sausages, ice cream, and beer.
The most perplexing paradox of them all, and in many respects their root source, is Mackey himself. I met him in a conference room at the company headquarters, in Austin. He slipped in through a door in the conference room and made a comment to a colleague about a book of Wendell Berry poems. We talked briefly about Frisbee golf, his game of choice. He was dressed in khakis, a pleather belt, trail shoes, and a green polo shirt with a Whole Foods logo. He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly, with a gentle Texas twang.
The health-care op-ed’s headline, “THE WHOLE FOODS ALTERNATIVE TO OBAMACARE,” was the Journals, Mackey says, but the sentiments were his. Mackey’s prescriptions ranged from the obvious (people need to eat better) to the market-minded (promote interstate competition among insurers) to the dreamy (the corporations will take care of us). The gist was that, together, they’d obviate the need for a federal plan, and that the course being pursued by the White House and the Democrats would have disastrous consequences. He led with an epigram attributed to Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
Before submitting the op-ed, he showed it to Lanny Davis, the former Clinton White House special counsel, who represented Whole Foods in its antitrust battle. Davis told me that he “prodded John a little to think like a liberal,” and he reckons that the Thatcher quote was ill-advised. Still, he blames “left-wing McCarthyism” for the outrage that greeted the piece.
“I was so viciously attacked for two reasons,” Mackey told me. “One is that people had an idea in their minds about the way Whole Foods was. So when I articulated a capitalistic interpretation of what needed to be done in health care, that was disappointing to some people.” He begrudges the extent to which people have projected onto Whole Foods an unrealistic and idealistic vision of the company. “The C.E.O. of Safeway, Steven Burd, wrote an op-ed piece in June advocating, basically, market solutions to the health-care problem, and nobody gave a shit,” he said.
Of course, Whole Foods has always held itself up as a paragon of virtue. It is an article of faith that it is, as Mackey often says, a mission-based business. It has seven “core values,” which are, broadly speaking, commitments to the fulfillment and equitable treatment of all “stakeholders”—customers, employees, investors, and suppliers—as well as to the health of the populace, of the food system, and of the earth. Whole Foods’ claim to righteousness is, in many respects, its unique selling point. If the mission is sincere, so is the commitment to making money. Mackey is adamant, and not merely unapologetic, that his company—any company—can and should pursue profits and a higher purpose simultaneously, and that in fact the pursuit of both enhances the pursuit of each. “Whole Foods itself is a market-based solution,” he said. “We’re a corporation. We are in capitalism. We have to compete with Safeway and Wal-Mart and Kroger and Wegmans and Trader Joe’s. What’s odd about it is that that’s what we’ve always been. We’re not a co-op.” To “the people that really dislike us,” he said, “Whole Foods is a big corporation, so they think that we’ve crossed over to the dark side. Kind of the Darth Vader myth, that somehow or another we’ve become bad because we’ve become large.”
The second reason people got so angry about his Journal column, Mackey says, is that he exposed what he calls the issue’s “shadow side.” “The shadow side is when you bring up arguments, or a position, that people have never reflected upon and never really thought through, and it’s threatening to them,” he said. “It’s a shadow. It’s underneath. And, rather than deal with it, they lash out in anger and fear and hatred. In that op-ed piece, I was trying to make the argument that health care is really not different from anything else we provide for ourselves”—he had mentioned food and shelter—“and that capitalism is better than socialism at providing those things.” He added, “You certainly can articulate that I would rather live in a society where there’s universal health care. I think that’s my personal preference, but all I can do is articulate that it’s not intrinsic in the nature of human beings to have a right to health care. And, so, kill the messenger.”

Mackey was brought up in a conventional middle-class home in a suburb of Houston. His father, Bill Mackey, was a professor of accounting at Rice University, and his mother gave up school teaching to raise John and his two siblings. When John was sixteen, in 1969, Bill Mackey became the C.E.O. of a health-care company, which was sold, fifteen years later, for nearly a billion dollars. Bill could be a domineering dinner-table debater and an occasionally wounding plain-speaker; he was the best man at John’s wedding, the first investor in Whole Foods, and, until John was in his late thirties, the presiding object of his efforts to succeed and please. People who saw them interact, during the years when Bill Mackey served on the Whole Foods board of directors, observed a conspicuous inheritance of certain traits, and an equally conspicuous struggle to lay sole claim to them. Bill Mackey died in 2004, after suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Mackey says that he was not as close to his mother, who died in 1987. “The last thing she asked me, she said, ‘John, promise me you’ll go back to school and get a college degree.’ I said, ‘Mom, I’m not going back to school. I’m doing Whole Foods.’ She said, ‘I wish you’d just give up that stupid health-food store. Your father and I gave you a fine mind, and you’re wasting it being a grocer.’ ” That was their final conversation. “I was so proud of my own honesty and my own candor and my own integrity. But she died thinking that I was a failure and that I didn’t love her, and, I mean, why put your mother through that on her deathbed? I wish I could take that back.”
In high school, Mackey was an indifferent student, a late bloomer, puberty-wise, and a fanatic about basketball, science fiction, and girls. Before his senior year, he was cut from the varsity basketball team, and he persuaded his parents to move so that he could switch schools and play. “That changed my life, because for the first time I realized that if you didn’t like the hand you were dealt you didn’t just have to feel sorry for yourself. You could do something about it.”
He went on to Trinity University, a small school in San Antonio, and the world flowered before him, as it did for so many in those days. “I was reading a lot of philosophy and religion,” he said. “And I did a lot of those experiments that young people do when they’re in college. I’ll not name those. We can’t be candid about everything in our society. You can’t kick the door down. What people were doing in the early seventies, I was doing it, too.” He quit playing basketball and, for the next several years, went back and forth between Trinity and the University of Texas, in Austin, taking only courses that interested him, and therefore hardly advancing toward a degree. He settled in Austin, in a house of ten or so men. He worked part-time as a dishwasher and spent his nights reading in the library. He had a beard and long bushy hair. Eventually, he moved into a co-ed vegetarian collective.
“I had no interest in a vegetarian life style,” he said. “But what I was interested in was alternative life styles. And I thought, honestly, that I’d meet a lot of interesting women. And I did.”
He began to care about food. His mother had been of the generation of women emancipated by frozen and processed foods, and he hadn’t really ever paid particular attention to what he had been given to eat. Now he started cooking for the collective and working part time at a natural-foods store called Good Foods. “I loved it,” he said. “I loved retail. I loved being around food. I loved natural foods. I loved organic foods. I loved the whole idea of it. And a thought entered into my mind that maybe this is what I could do.”
The Whole Foods shopper at some point experiences a pang of surprise upon discovering that the chain started in Texas, rather than in, say, Berkeley or Boston. But Austin isn’t really Texas. It is the People’s Republic of Austin. In the seventies, it was a cheap and groovy little town, much smaller and less commercial than it is now. There was no Dell or Intel or AMD. Its particular countercultural contribution was the cosmic cowboy, the dope-smoking redneck, so perhaps it was fitting that, amid a burgeoning natural-foods scene (there were a dozen or so spots: the Hobbit Hole, the Juice Factory, Wheatsville, etc.), a kind of complement took root: the brown-rice capitalist.
In 1978, with forty-five thousand dollars from friends and family, he and his girlfriend at the time, Renee Lawson, decided to start a store of their own, which they called SaferWay—a takeoff on Safeway. The store was on the ground floor of a Victorian house; they lived on the third floor and ran a small restaurant on the second—a rustic prototype for today’s prepared-food extravaganzas. The house didn’t have a shower, so they bathed in the store using the hose from a dishwasher, a creation legend that the company holds dear.
He soon noticed that a number of much bigger natural-foods stores had sprouted up around the country, such as Mrs. Gooch’s and Frazier Farms, in California. He persuaded Craig Weller and Mark Skiles, the owners of a store called Clarksville Natural Grocery, to merge with him and Lawson (in part, by implying that he might put them out of business), and, in 1980, the four of them opened the first Whole Foods, in a former night club. It was ten thousand square feet. They stocked not just lentils and granola but, in contravention of the co-op ethos, indulgences like meat, beer, and wine; there were aisles full of five-gallon bottles of distilled water, to avoid the embarrassment of empty shelf space. The idea was to go beyond the movement’s old tofu severity, the air of judgment and self-abnegation. Their version of decadence seems Spartan now, but at the time it represented a cultural shift.
Skiles, who left the company in the mid-eighties, after some friction with Mackey (“It became clear I was less my own boss than I’d expected to be,” he said), and who now has a pizza shop in Austin called Pizza Nizza, told me, “We realized that if we have guys who come in to buy a bag of sprouts and then sit around all day reading we’ll go out of business quick. You need people to shop, to have the inclination to push a cart around and fill it up.”
The first Whole Foods thrived, with a setback or two. (Another cherished legend: in 1981, a flood inundated the store with eight feet of water, and a battalion of customers helped the founders clean, repair, restock, and reopen it.) It became something of a local hot spot. “I did all the hiring the first five years,” Skiles said. “I had a field day, man. Everyone wanted to work there. It was like hiring bartenders at Studio 54. I became famous for hiring gorgeous women as cashiers. Hey, that’s what we were selling: vitality and sensuality.” (“That’s not my recollection,” Mackey said.)
They built two more stores in Austin and expanded to Houston and Dallas. Then they bought a store in New Orleans called, of all things, Whole Food Company, settling on a strategy of buying existing stores in pursuit of a kind of nationwide Pax Austinia. The owner of the New Orleans store, Peter Roy, eventually became the company’s first president. (Lawson left the company in 1981, to move to Belize.)
Next came Palo Alto, which happened to be next door to a good deal of venture capital, and Mackey and his partners spent months plying Sand Hill Road. Of the twelve V.C.s they went to see, all but three turned them down. As Mackey recalls in “Passion and Purpose,” “One of them said one day: ‘You know, I really think you’re just selling hippie food to hippies. I gotta tell ya that I don’t think it’s gonna work. But if it does work, Safeway’s gonna just steal it from you and you’re not going to be able to exist anyway.’ ” Mackey, for one, always feared that Safeway, or some other big chain, would do just that, but for a long time it did not.
A key contributor to Whole Foods’ success, and to its reputation and self-image as a progressive business, was the company’s structure. Whole Foods is divided into a dozen regions, which in some ways operate almost as separate businesses, to encourage creativity and a sense of ownership. (This arrangement can make life complicated for suppliers.) The stores, too, have a high degree of autonomy. There are regional oddities: Venice, California, has a kombucha bar; Portland, Maine, is the only store that carries live lobster; in Dallas, you can hit “The Spa by Whole Foods Market” while a team member shops for you. The team is the fundamental Whole Foods work unit. Teams participate in selecting their bosses and their products, and are accountable for their performance.
“We’ve been making it up as we’ve gone along,” Mackey said. “I never took any business classes or worked for other companies. I don’t like authoritarian managers.”
After the successful opening of a Chicago store, in 1991, the company went public, and embarked on a shopping spree. The new vassals enriched what had been a fairly clumsy enterprise with their particular wisdoms; for all his curiosity and drive, Mackey was not an expert grocer. In 1991, Whole Foods bought Wellspring Grocery, in North Carolina, and kept its co-owner Lex Alexander to run its private-label business. In 1992, it bought Bread & Circus, in Boston, whose owner, Tony Harnett, was known for his procurement of seafood. Next came Mrs. Gooch’s, and with it Sandy Gooch and his head for diet supplements and the merchandising of meat. And so on, until Whole Foods grew to be the cornucopian gourmet grocer that we now either want or find wanting. It has two hundred and eighty-seven stores. (Mackey recently told the magazine Reason that the key variable in deciding where to put the new stores is the number of college graduates within a sixteen-minute drive.) The company has sales of about eight billion dollars a year, enabling it to affect the food-supply chain, for good and ill.
“When you look at the power to move billions of dollars through the agricultural economy to address some deep and unconscionable problems, you have to credit Whole Foods for being one of the pivot points,” Hirshberg, of Stonyfield, said. “It deserves a lot of the credit for breaking us out of a cul-de-sac in terms of food and health, and the health of the planet.”

Mackey is an example of what you might call the auteur C.E.O. Like Steve Jobs’s, his personality is entwined in his company’s. He doesn’t bother with day-to-day operations; he’s not a technician or a face man. When he’s asked what it is he does, exactly, he describes a kind of philosopher-king, who brings big ideas to bear. Mackey, an outspoken critic of executive overcompensation, pays himself a dollar a year. No one at the company can have a salary more than nineteen times what the average team member makes. (On average, an S. & P. 500 C.E.O. makes three hundred and nineteen times what a production worker does.) Last year, the highest salary went to Walter Robb, the co-president and chief operating officer, who made just over four hundred thousand dollars (supplemented by a bonus and stock options). The average hourly wage was sixteen dollars and fifty cents.

Whole Foods has made Mackey a wealthy man. He owns roughly thirty million dollars in stock—less than one per cent of the company—and has sold millions more over the years. Still, he flies commercial and drives a Honda Civic hybrid. He has houses in Boulder and Austin, and a seven-hundred-and-twenty-acre non-working ranch an hour outside of town, where he and Deborah spend many weekends. They married eighteen years ago. She’s an adherent of Sufism. This fall, for a Halloween party, she dressed Mackey up as a Qigong master, and herself as a Chinese opera singer; in the costume competition, they came in fifth. They believe in having—and, being childless, have the luxury of having—separate lives, in addition to a life together. In “Passion and Purpose,” he talks about a conversation they had at a spiritual seminar: “She told me how she only wanted to be with me in this love connection, this heart connection. She wanted to be there for all eternity. I started to get nervous, I started to get freaked out. . . . She said, ‘What are you afraid of?’ . . . ‘I like love, I like being with love, but I don’t want to be trapped in the love space.’ . . . That’s a joke now between us all the time, whenever I start to withdraw. . . . ‘Are you afraid of the love space?’ ”
The non-love space in his house is his study, which she avoids. Sometimes he watches sports there—he roots for the Rockets—but most of the time he reads. He sits in a recliner, surrounded by stacks of books. He gives them a good working over, marking them with underlinings, highlighter, and Post-its. He is, as he says, an intuitive-thinking type, on the Myers-Briggs scale. When I asked him recently what he was reading, he named half a dozen books and then a few days later had a press person send me a list of thirteen. Among them were a critique of Keynes (“It’s been proven it doesn’t work, but Keynes was such a brilliant and fascinating guy that he hypnotized this whole generation of economists”); biographies of Booker T. Washington, Peter Drucker, and Ayn Rand (“She wasn’t a business person. And I am. And I know something about the market. And, by telling people that it’s all about selfishness, you’re alienating a huge potential part of the market unnecessarily. She really meant self-interest. Enlightened self-interest. So why use ‘selfishness’? It’s a bad brand”); books about “bourgeois virtues,” “integral consciousness,” health-care reform, fasting, and basketball; and “Pride and Prejudice.” (“I’ve gotten old enough so that my masculinity is not in question.”)
One of the books on the list was “Heaven and Earth: Global Warming—the Missing Science,” a skeptical take on climate change. Mackey told me that he agrees with the book’s assertion that, as he put it, “no scientific consensus exists” regarding the causes of climate change; he added, with a candor you could call bold or reckless, that it would be a pity to allow “hysteria about global warming” to cause us “to raise taxes and increase regulation, and in turn lower our standard of living and lead to an increase in poverty.” One would imagine that, on this score, many of his customers, to say nothing of most climate scientists, might disagree. He also said, “Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures.”
Mackey likes to say that he does things primarily for fun, including Whole Foods. His definition of fun blends self-denial and self-indulgence, and a will to perfection. In 2001, he came across a book called “Beyond Backpacking,” by Ray Jardine, the father of what’s called “ultralight” hiking—the discipline of selecting gear and material of nearly unimaginable low weight. He got his pack down to around twelve pounds, excluding food and water. He talked the board of directors into granting him a five-month sabbatical to hike the Appalachian Trail, and recruited a few friends; the following spring and summer, they walked from Georgia to Maine. His trail name is Strider. Since then, he’s gone backpacking every summer—he was on the Appalachian Trail in August, when controversy over his health-care column broke—and has bought a controlling interest in a company called Gossamer Gear. His pack weight is now less than seven pounds. Ultralight hiking is, in some respects, like the grocery business: each requires strict attention to inventory and a fondness for a slog. The problem is that the grocery business involves other people.
“Well, it’s less fun when people are calling you an asshole and writing you hate mail, but generally I’m still having fun,” Mackey told me. “Yeah, I am self-actualizing myself. You want to use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? I am fulfilling my inner desires, in terms of reaching my fullest potential as a human being. I became a grocer.”

In 1994, H-E-B, a Texas supermarket chain controlled by the San Antonio billionaire Charles Butt, opened Central Market, a huge gourmet grocery store, in Austin, in a shopping center north of the university. It siphoned off some Whole Foods shoppers. I heard it said in Austin that “Central Market is of the people and Whole Foods is of the Man.” Mackey may not be Che Guevara, but, in fairness, neither is Butt. Central Market’s incursion spurred Whole Foods to open, in 2005, a store beneath its new headquarters, at the edge of downtown. The store is eighty thousand square feet.

At lunchtime and in the early evening, the store teems. The layout is diffuse, with a series of food stations—pizza, seafood, Indian—occupying the slack space between the packaged goods and the meat, cheese, and fish. (One Austin resident and Central Market partisan told me, “The store is a reflection of Mackey’s personality. It has a fuck-you layout.”) You can buy a bottle of wine, and drink it there. My first day at the store, lured by the smell of mesquite, I found myself in line at the barbecue station. The counterman pulled out a brisket that had been in the smoker for fifteen hours and distributed samples. Engine 2 this was not. A very large man was eating a taco—brisket rolled up in a flour tortilla with jalapeños, onions, pickles, and sauce. He said, “If you get one, you’ll want another. If you get two, you’ll know you had brisket.” I ordered two, and it was so: I possessed the knowledge of having had brisket. The next day, I dined at the vegan counter. I decided on a “gyro”—seitan, cucumbers, tzatziki, seaweed. Afterward, I wanted another.
Earlier, I had got a cheese primer from the head buyer, Cathy Strange (her desert-island cheese is Mt. Tam, a stroke-hastener from Cowgirl Creamery, in Marin County, which sells for about thirty dollars a pound) and before that a tour of the store from Walter Robb, who had overseen its design and construction. Robb had found inspiration in the KaDeWe department store, in Berlin, which, when the city was divided, served as an advertisement for capitalistic abundance.
This store, like most, led with produce. “Nothing more whole foods than produce,” Robb said. “Look at all the colors.” There were thirty varieties of apples. “Most markets say, Let’s throw the food out there and stick it in your bodies. No, it’s a beautiful, stimulating experience. It’s a visual experience.” Sometimes the store deploys “dummies,” wooden or cardboard devices hidden under mounds of produce, to create an illusion of greater supply—supermarket Wonderbras. At the meat counter, he described the differences in sheen and texture of grass-fed and grain-fed beef.
Robb is a tall and fit Bostonian who went West to attend college at Stanford in the early seventies. His then-girlfriend had back-to-the-land parents up in Trinity County, and while reading Wendell Berry and helping them crack their own wheat he decided to start a natural-foods store there. He eventually opened one in Mill Valley, which Whole Foods bought in 1991. (It was store No. 11.)
We passed the candy counter, with its “chocolate-enrobing” fountain—you can have anything dipped in chocolate, even salmon. “We got caught up a little in the foodie stuff of the nineties,” Robb said. “We have in some ways, as we’ve been making our way along here, contributed to the feeling that this”—he gestured to the store—“is not something that people can afford, or it’s not accessible to them, or it’s over-the-top. We have our share of responsibility in that. We’re not here to sell cheap food, but we’ve been working hard on our value flank.”
When I asked Robb about Mackey, a look of something like temperance—a flash of mirth—crossed his face. “I would write about him being the guy who, at these sort of inflection points that every business faces, seems to show up with ideas that are original and thoughtful and attuned to the moment.” He divided those into “true-ups, let-gos, and big steps.”
The healthy-eating initiative is a bit of all three. Copies of “The Engine 2 Diet” were stacked by the entrance, next to a booth occupied by a newly deployed nutritional counsellor, a “source-a-tarian,” who can advise shoppers on conveyances for leafy greens. Around the Whole Foods headquarters, employees obsess over kale (which, according to the nutrition scoring system that the company has adopted, has more nutrients per calorie than any other food) the way bond traders do over swaps or Tiger Woods. Employees can compete in a three-month nationwide derby, a health nuts’ Hogwarts House Cup, in which teams get points for exercising and for using mass transit. Beginning in 2010, they will be able to earn better employee discounts by lowering their cholesterol and losing weight. This doesn’t mean that Whole Foods is scrapping its cheese counter or its beer alley or its chocolate-enrobing apparatus. At Whole Foods, the customer is still always mostly right.

With Mackey, it’s natural to wonder: is he at heart an entrepreneur, who discovered, in natural foods, a worthy vehicle for self-actualization and self-enrichment, or a missionary, who discovered in the grocery business a worldly vehicle for change?

“So that’s a very interesting question,” he said, leaning forward. “How are they opposed to one another? People think that they are, but why do you think they’re opposed?”
I said that I didn’t think they had to be.
“I don’t, either. In fact, I think they’re very connected together. This is a paradigm that has polarized our country and led to bad thinking. It’s holding the nation’s progress back. It’s as if there were a wall. And on one side of the wall is this belief that not-for-profits and government exist for public service, and that they’re fundamentally altruistic, that they have a deeper purpose, and they’re doing good in the world, and they have pure motives. On the other side of the wall are corporations. And they’re just selfish and greedy. They have no purpose other than to make money. They’re a bunch of psychopaths. And I’d like to tear that wall down. Human beings are obviously self-interested. We do look after ourselves, but we’re capable of love, empathy, and compassion, and I don’t see that business is any different.”
He went on, “We’re trying to do good. And we’re trying to make money. The more money we make, the more good we can do.” By this, he had in mind not the traditional philanthropic argument that more money earned equals more to give away but, rather, that a good company—that is, his company—which sells good things and treats its employees, shareholders, customers, and suppliers well, can spread goodness simply by thriving.
This was a variation on what he calls “conscious capitalism,” which some people, smelling an oxymoron, or worse, snicker at. His idea is that business should have a higher purpose—that, just as doctors heal and teachers educate, businesspeople should be after something besides money. It may be an easier argument for a grocer to make; he feeds people, and if he feeds them properly he heals and educates them, too. But it borders on humbug when you apply it to, say, Wall Street. Consciousness, as it relates to capitalism, is in the eyes not so much of the beholder as of the capitalist.
Whole Foods routinely ranks high on those lists of companies that are the best to work for. The health and retirement benefits are relatively generous. Mackey regards his blend of paternalism and sovereignty as a recipe for proper governance, an expression of both compassion and creativity. This view is not shared by unions, which have complained that Mackey prevents unionization among his employees, notably at a store in Madison, Wisconsin, where team members had voted to unionize. Unions have picketed store openings and, as activist investors in Whole Foods stock, have called for Mackey’s firing.
In the early eighties, Mackey told a reporter, “The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.” (That quote, to Mackey’s dismay, won’t go away, either.) His disdain for contemporary unionism is ideological, as well as self-serving. Like many who have come before, he says that it was only when he started a business—when he had to meet payroll and deal with government red tape—that his political and economic views, fed on readings of Friedman, Rand, and the Austrians, veered to the right. But there is also a psychological dimension. It derives in large part from a tendency, common among smart people, to presume that everyone in the world either does or should think as he does—to take for granted that people can (or want to) strike his patented balance of enlightenment and self-interest. It sometimes sounds as if he believed that, if every company had him at the helm, there would be no need for unions or health-care reform, and that therefore every company should have someone like him, and that therefore there should be no unions or health-care reform. In other words, because he runs a business a certain way, others will, can, and should, and so the safeguards that have evolved over the generations to protect against human venality—against, say, greedy, bullying bosses—are no longer necessary. The logic is as sound as the presumption is preposterous.
His belief in the power of the individual is such that blame falls on individuals, too. In his view, it tends to be the fault of the unhealthy or fat person that he or she is unhealthy or fat. People just need to eat better. He told me, “If I could, I would wave a magic wand so that Americans ate better, because the diseases that are killing us—heart disease, cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s—these diseases have a high correlation with diet. And that is something that most people do not understand.”
It matters less to him that our food system, for a dozen reasons, as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, and many others have chronicled, has been rigged to deliver unhealthy food at artificially low cost to a misguided public. People have the power and the means to choose rice and beans over Big Macs, and when they fail to do so they bring ruin on themselves, and on everyone else. In his Wall Street Journal column, Mackey wrote of “the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health. Unfortunately, many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight, and one-third are obese.” Inarguable as this assertion may be, it struck a discordant note. People who may look to Whole Foods to agitate for changes in the food system, or who have been bankrupted by medical costs despite eating right, might wonder if it was quite the moment to be preaching personal responsibility. “That was a disappointing statement: ‘What’s wrong with you? Just stop eating,’ ” Theresa Marquez, the chief marketing executive of Organic Valley, the giant farming coöperative, told me. “ It’s not just an individual thing. It’s a societal and systemic thing. I said to Walter Robb, ‘Walter, why are you letting him do this?’ ”

A grocer, typically, wants to hide what goes on in back. A grocery store is a theatrical production, designed to dazzle the customer, and to disguise the artifice and hard work behind the scenes. Over the years, grocers have helped keep their customers happily ignorant of the food’s origins—of the horrors of the slaughterhouse, the miseries of the onion fields, and the absurdities contained in a can of soda or a bag of chips. Our interface with the food chain ended with the stock boy and his sticker gun in Aisle 6.

Whole Foods sought to change that. It began to sell information and narrative, along with the food. It told stories about where the food came from, putting up displays by the seafood counter with photographs and descriptions of the real fishermen who had caught it all—a genre that Michael Pollan, in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” called “supermarket pastoral.”
The profusion of provender—the array of colors and shapes, the gleaming fruits, fishes, and meats, the grains and cakes and ranges of artisanal cheeses and beers—is as much an apotheosis of America’s abundance and reach as it is any kind of refutation of it. Whole Foods may aim to be a rebuke to the excess that comes of petrochemical might, unconscious gluttony, and corn-bloated immoderation. But it is also an imperial presentation of progress’s spoils, like a king’s Christmas feasts. The business depends on it, even if the brand image does not. The layout encourages impulse purchases. This is how a weekend grocery bill there can easily run to four hundred bucks. It may be that the prices of items that you’d buy elsewhere are the same at Whole Foods, but you come across stuff at a Whole Foods that you would not at a Stop & Shop, or at some dusty Yorkville Gristedes. The stingy shopper—a slayer of leftovers—may wonder whether there is some Potemkin in the profusion; it is hard to imagine people buying, much less eating, all that before it goes bad. But the stores can’t afford to waste vast quantities of food merely to send subliminal signals. Those prepared-food teams are adept at converting forlorn vegetables into casserole.
But might there be some Potemkin in the entire enterprise? Pollan argued that the impression left by the store’s displays was misleading; “organic” often meant that the food came from gigantic monocultural operations owned by the big food conglomerates, which abided by the letter but not the spirit of the term, rather than from, say, the Edenic chemical-free family farm that you pictured when you paid a dollar more for the organic soy chips. Pollan’s specimen was asparagus, flown, in January, from Argentina. It was organic, by U.S.D.A. standards (which a Whole Foods executive had helped to devise), but it had travelled six thousand miles, and it tasted like cardboard. The irony, then, was that Whole Foods, in lifting one veil from the food industry, was complicit in replacing it with another. Whole Foods was, in Pollan’s account, kind of a phony.
In 2006, when “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” came out, Pollan went to Austin to do a reading in a bookstore, which, it turned out, Mackey partly owned. Mackey requested a meeting. They talked for a few hours. Mackey was angry about how Whole Foods was depicted and handed Pollan a five-page single-spaced letter, which he then posted on his Web site. Pollan wrote a lengthy response, and for months they carried on an exchange of polemics that culminated in an onstage debate in Berkeley. The upshot was that Mackey acknowledged certain shortcomings and vowed to make changes, among them greater commitments to local farming and grass-fed beef.
Still, he chafes at Pollan’s exaltation of the little. “America has kind of a love affair with small business,” Mackey said. “A local farmer is a businessman. He’s selling stuff. But he has apparently not been corrupted. He’s still small, he’s still pure. But at some point, if he was to grow, he would cross over. People used to think Whole Foods was cute and cuddly, and now we’re this industrial, pastoral, organic monster that cares only about money and is selfish and horrible.”
Mackey has on several occasions acted on criticisms. At a shareholder meeting in 2003, animal-rights activists staged a protest over duck, which led him to examine the meat business more closely. This inspired his vegan conversion, and persuaded him to overhaul the meat-procurement process. Some criticize Whole Foods for selling meat at all. A few years ago, Mackey told Grist, a Seattle environmental magazine, “Sure, I wish Whole Foods didn’t sell animal products, but the fact of the matter is that the population of vegetarians in America is like 5 percent, and vegans are like 25 or 30 percent of the vegetarians. So if we were to become a vegan store, we’d go out of business, we’d cease to exist. And that wouldn’t be good for the animals, for our customers, our employees, our stockholders, or anybody else. If I were to take Whole Foods in this direction I would be removed as CEO.”

Mackey is, by all accounts, fiercely competitive. Years ago, the traditional executive-retreat volleyball games had to be scrapped, owing to Mackey’s intensity and his ill-disguised scorn for less capable teammates. (Mackey says that he simply got too old for volleyball.) Still, cutthroat competitiveness is pretty much the norm among corporate bosses and successful entrepreneurs. So is a taste for self-assertion, and a wake of bruised feelings and thwarted dreams.

Certainly, Mackey’s relationships with many former colleagues seem fraught. They won’t talk about him on the record, out of concern for propriety, ongoing business dealings, or non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements they signed when they left. (It is ironic that a company so outspoken about transparency has produced a diaspora of such wary silence.) But one gathers—from their demurrals, Mackey’s own comments, and other reports—that Mackey can be hard to work for, that he has perhaps inherited his father’s talent for hurtful direct talk, and that, while he may be, as he used to say, an “accidental grocer,” he is not always an accidental accumulator or practitioner of power. Of all the grocers who came to Whole Foods after it purchased their businesses, only Walter Robb remains.
Mackey has experimented with various modes of self-discovery. During one group session of breathing exercises, Mackey reëxperienced his birth—“I was a Cesarean.” Afterward, some of his Grofian friends suggested that he look at a book called “A Course in Miracles,” written anonymously by two Columbia psychologists. The book’s first printing, in 1976, had been financed by Reed Erickson, a wealthy transsexual living in Mexico.
The friends described the Course as a channelling from Jesus, and Mackey assumed that it was baloney. He’d gone through a Christian phase for two years, in his late teens (he’d had a crush on a devout girl), but had since become an atheist. He took up the Course in order to refute it. “I was reading the text one day and getting ready to go argue with my friends, and I came upon this statement in the text that just blew my mind. It said—I’m paraphrasing—it said, Lifetime after lifetime after lifetime you have been angry at God. You have blamed God for all the problems in the world,” he says in “Passion and Purpose.” “And not once have you ever looked at the real source—you and all your brothers and sisters have created this state of being that you’re in. Not God. God is just pure love. . . . I got up. I started running around my house, because when I read it, it intuitively rang true for me.”
He became a student of the Course. “This particular reality that we’re in is not the only reality that exists,” he goes on in “Passion and Purpose.” “In fact, there are an infinite number of realities.”
The Course places a strong emphasis on forgiveness. After his Grofian epiphany two years ago, Mackey set out to repair sundered relationships with his mother (posthumously), former lovers, and ex-colleagues. Only one remains: a woman he lived with before he married Deborah. “She scares me a little bit,” he told me. “She’s a very powerful woman.” On the CD, he talks about a two-day visit with a former Whole Foods executive in South Carolina, who subjected him to a catalogue of grievances. Geographical deduction indicates that the South Carolinian was Peter Roy, the former president, whose departure from the company, eleven years ago, had been particularly contentious. (Roy declined to comment.)
“He needed a chance to just unload,” Mackey told me. “It’s not much fun to have somebody do that, particularly when you don’t agree. But you know what? It was very healing for him to do that. I gave him an opportunity to tell me why he thinks I’m such a jerk.” He went on, “There’s also a Course of Miracles saying—and this is such a wise piece of wisdom—would you rather be right or would you rather be happy? Most people would rather be right, but that’s bad strategy. So my guy thinks I’m wrong and I’m pretty sure he’s wrong. What difference does it make? I just go in and say, You’re right, I’m wrong, and then you have the basis for healing.”
“But you have a reputation for liking to argue,” I said to Mackey.
“But I don’t like to argue to be right. I like to argue because that’s how I get to the truth. I think dialectically.”

Would Mackey rather be right or happy? Or would he, to put it differently, rather the mission succeed or the business flourish? Survival is hardly assured. A grocer typically owns no patents and is vulnerable to a fickle marketplace. Mackey was determined, in the late nineties, to build an Internet operation—to become the Amazon.com of natural and organic foods—but the project came to naught. The Wild Oats merger was a dud. Last fall, as the recession deepened, Whole Foods’ sales, and its stock, suffered badly, and the company was forced to raise capital. Leonard Green & Partners, a private-equity firm, bought seventeen per cent of the business, and got two seats on the board. Yucaipa, a firm run by the grocery billionaire and Democratic Party donor Ron Burkle, bought a seven-per-cent stake and has been looking over Mackey’s shoulder.

“It’s like asking a parent, How would you feel if your kid was dead when you were eighty-six years old?” Mackey said. “Would I prefer Whole Foods to be very successful and people still ate terrible food and were getting heart disease and cancer and diabetes when they didn’t have to? I fundamentally don’t believe you have to get those diseases. Or Whole Foods has gone bankrupt, but yet the world’s health is far better and everybody’s eating a healthier diet? I’d rather have the second one. Absolutely.”
One wonders. Wal-Mart is now the biggest retailer of organic groceries, carrying, among other products, Stonyfield. Hirshberg said, “Wal-Mart being in the organic- and natural-food space presents a real conundrum for John. On the one hand, he is justifiably proud of the revolution he helped launch. But seeing the same products in both markets can drive him crazy.”
Mackey acknowledged that “Whole Foods has to continually evolve and get better or we’ll get passed up. And that’s the way capitalism is.” He cited A. & P., which was the biggest grocer in America before undergoing a precipitate decline. “What matters is that whatever value we’ve created gets injected into the DNA of other companies and the economic system as a whole. Just like, speaking as a biological metaphor, Hey, your kids are here to replace you. Your DNA will move on, but you yourself will be eliminated. Whole Foods will someday die. Everything does. I’d rather mine not die while I’m still alive.”
A third option is that the mission and Whole Foods both flourish, but without Mackey. Companies have a way of outgrowing their founders. A few weeks ago, I met Mackey again, in New York, at a midtown bar. He was between appearances on financial cable-news programs, to talk about fourth-quarter earnings. He had on a dark suit and pleather shoes, and was drinking sparkling water.
I asked him whether he’d given thought to what might come after him. “I don’t have any plans to leave anytime soon, no matter how much the unions would like me to,” he said. Talk turned to food, as it often does. “You only love animal fat because you’re used to it,” he said. “You’re addicted.” He urged me to consider reprogramming my palate. He also suggested that I try Grofian breathing.
After a moment, he got up to leave, and I watched him walk toward Sixth Avenue, in a suit that looked a size or two too big, thinking, or not thinking, about what he was going to say on the Fox Business channel. 
 


Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/01/04/100104fa_fact_paumgarten?currentPage=all#ixzz0bkzeGOUD
 

I'm  not a huge fan of Whole Foods. They've been trying to get better ground in the Portland market for a few years and tried some really seedy stuff with one of  our local chains. I also read Omnivore's Dilemma, which basically said Whole Foods is no better than Walmart for food sourcing, though their labor standards might be better.
yunghustlaz 5th-Jan-2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
Farmers markets, people!

Also I forgot about him posting under a psuedonym calling his own hair cute, lol so sly.
pennieblack 5th-Jan-2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
"Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures."

Lol, what?
1: He doesn't believe in climate change, but he thinks the changing climate which he doesn't believe in is a good thing.
2: He doesn't believe that science is causing climate change, but that our increased prosperity is so hott it's warming the atmosphere.
3: Similarly, it's been a cold winter here because the government is increasing regulations.

I like number two best.
lied_ohne_worte 5th-Jan-2010 07:21 pm (UTC)
"Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures."

Well, if temperatures in Europe rise, we will get to grow plants that did not grow before. I already read about wine growing better in certain areas than it used to. Of course, people in Pacific island states will not be that prosperous, as their countries will be under water, and people in Africa neither, because the deserts will grow, but who cares about them?
pennieblack 5th-Jan-2010 07:55 pm (UTC)
Pffft, caring about other countries is for pansies.
firerosearien 5th-Jan-2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
"Historically, prosperity tends to correlate to warmer temperatures."


In medieval history, this is true.

(Mind, I do not deny global warming/climate change/whatever you call it)
papilio_luna 5th-Jan-2010 07:02 pm (UTC)
That dude is such a hot mess.



East End Food Co-Op forever, Whole Foods never.

lillielil 5th-Jan-2010 07:22 pm (UTC)
None of this was news to me other than the sock-puppetry, which cracks me up.

I'll admit that I shop at Whole Foods every now, but only when I have gone to all other sources and still need to cross one or two items off the list. It's one of those places that I don't really support, but don't think is terrible enough to completely boycott.
jesidres 5th-Jan-2010 07:42 pm (UTC)
MTE. Except I knew about sockpuppetry, and laughed my ass off at when it happened.

There are certain things Whole Foods carries that I can't get anywhere else (unless I special order it), and I have to admit their meat department prices are on par or lower than all the other supermarkets around for generally higher quality meat.

When the letter in the Journal came out in the summer, my local one had a sign out saying "Excuse our CEO- he doesn't speak for us."
jesidres 5th-Jan-2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
Not really- particularly since it was an personal opinion piece- and the store near me is fairly autonomous- they carry Whole Food brands, yes, but they also carry a lot of products from local farms that the other stores don't.

*Shrug*
lone_concertina 5th-Jan-2010 09:20 pm (UTC)
All stores carry products from local farms that others don't. I worked on a farm and we sold our produce to the ones in Central Texas, but they're all still the same disgusting Whole Foods as all the others. That doesn't mean Mackey doesn't ultimately make the decisions for them all.
c_yo_yus 5th-Jan-2010 08:14 pm (UTC)
I tried to read this whole thing. Then I realized it was a novel and that he was bat-shit crazy so I quit.

Cool story, bro.
vulgarcriminal 5th-Jan-2010 08:28 pm (UTC)
COOL TINY FONT
c_yo_yus 5th-Jan-2010 08:36 pm (UTC)
Uh... I wasn't slagging you, I was slagging the stupid moron who runs Whole Foods. He's not engaging enough for me to read that whole thing. Ugh.

Cool Scary Stories icon. :)
vulgarcriminal 5th-Jan-2010 08:55 pm (UTC)
Oops. It's a reflex when I see the tiny font. :D

Where is yours from?
c_yo_yus 5th-Jan-2010 09:51 pm (UTC)
Alkaline Trio.

I'd have a Scary Stories icon only those pictures scared the ever-loving fuck out of me as a kid. That one, mostly, but the one with the spiders on the girls face? INSTANT MENTAL DETH.
haruhiko 5th-Jan-2010 08:47 pm (UTC)
This kind of shit is why I am so glad there is a 365-days-a-year farmer's market in my town, along with great local CSAs and a whole slew of local/regional stores or smalls chains that do what Whole Foods tries to do but on a smaller scale and without a shitty CEO using the fact that he has made major money off the backs of liberals to espouse his deluded take on science at the national level.

I haven't completely boycotted the large chains as I will still go to Trader Joe's or Whole Foods on occasion, but I really dislike how a lot of liberals hold those two companies up as some sort of paragons of organic/sustainable/green virtuousness, when really, they so aren't. They're a notch above other big chain companies in some substantive ways but they're still highly problematic.
yunghustlaz 5th-Jan-2010 09:27 pm (UTC)
Local food without the capitalism, kids!
iluvhistory 6th-Jan-2010 02:51 am (UTC)
You're an Austinite too, right?
Which farmer's markets have you found to be reasonable?
There's a huge one downtown but they were asking 12$ for a small watermelon at peak of the season last year.
hinoema 6th-Jan-2010 05:19 am (UTC)
All I want is for someone to ask him "So you want to get rid of Medicare, Social Security and the VA, then?"
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