Activist Investors Drive Change at Whole Foods

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\"\"We talk a lot about disruptors and how they have turned retailing upside down, challenging the very existence of entire industry sectors. So here’s another disruptor to put into the mix: activist investors.

The beleaguered Whole Foods chain is on the move at last.

The retailer of organic and specialty food product has just made some uncharacteristically dramatic moves by bringing aboard five new directors and pledging to accelerate long-pending marketing and efficiency initiatives.

Of course, there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, namely that the impetus for change came from activist investors that have been publicly urging Whole Foods to get turnaround efforts underway and consider a sale of the whole company.

Those investors are Jana Partners, which owns 8.3 percent of Whole Foods’ shares, and Neuberger Berman, which owns 2.7 percent. Together, those investors own 11 percent of Whole Foods.

That raises the question: Is Whole Foods making changes that will ultimately result in a stronger company that is lifted by increasing sales and profitability? Or is Whole Foods seeking to placate the investors to buy some time?

I would bet on the latter, but let’s find out more by looking at what’s going on.

Decline and Fall

Whole Foods is clearly facing some big headwinds. To see how strong they are, it’s not necessary to look farther than comp-store sales. Six years ago, comp sales were approaching 10 percent, a number without precedent in contemporary food retailing. By 2014, a steep decline set in and by mid-2015, the measure slipped into negative territory — below minus 2 percent. During the most recent quarter, comp sales dipped to minus 2.8 percent.

What caused that is very simple. Whole Foods once had a near monopoly on organic and natural product, which gave it great pricing power. Then, competitors wised up and started to offer such product at much lower price points. So, without either exclusivity of product or pricing power, Whole Foods’ financial performance fell off a cliff.

As Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey remarked recently, “Our competitors are not standing still.”

Well, that’s for sure. Consider: three years ago, Kroger rolled out its “Simple Truth” line of organic and natural product. That line now hands Kroger $1.6 billion in annual sales.

Astonishingly, sales of the “Simple Truth” private label line alone are approaching half of Whole Foods’ entire top line of $3.5 billion!

New Kids on the Block

So, Whole Foods has been poked into action, accounting for the turnover of the board. The aim seems to be to bring in new retailing and financial expertise.

The new directors are Ken Hicks, Foot Locker’s former chairman; Joe Mansueto, Morningstar’s founder; Scott Powers, a former executive at State Street; Ron Shaich, founder of restaurant chain Panera, and Sharon McCollum, a former Best Buy executive.

With those moves, five incumbent directors exited the board, including its chairman. A new chairman, Gabrielle Sulzberger, was drawn from the existing board.

Additionally, Whole Foods brought in a new chief financial officer, Keith Manbeck, previously with Kohl’s Corp. Whole Foods has vowed to further buff up its upper management tier with new hires.

Pivoting in Place

As for non-executive action, Whole Foods now intends to rapidly roll out its fledgling consumer loyalty program, to further lower prices and to seek in-store efficiencies. As for the last, the aim is to cut $300 million in operating expenses. Those changes no doubt are needed, but seem insufficient to fuel a turnaround.

Then there’s the new store initiative, the “365 by Whole Foods” format. Much has been made of the small-format, lower priced store. Yet, activity level for the store remains low. There are now four of them open with 22 more on the drawing board. The “365” store is obviously aimed at Trader Joe’s.

CEO Mackey spoke recently about the format, saying that, “We like the profit model that 365 offered.” He also said that “significant improvements” have been made to the format.

That seems to imply that “365” hasn’t achieved its expected sales potential, and that format tinkering is required.

As for the activist investors, they’ve issued statements to the effect that the changes at Whole Foods weren’t all they were seeking, but that they’re willing to wait a while to see what develops. So Whole Foods’ has bought some time.

Depending on what happens next, I imagine we’ll start to hear more about selling the company, which may be the best option for its future.

Here at The Robin Report, we talk a lot about disruptors and how they have turned retailing upside down, challenging the very existence of entire industry sectors. So here’s another disruptor to put into the mix: activist investors.

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