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NRF: Whole Foods’ Co-CEO Sees Virtues of ‘Higher Purpose’

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NEW YORK  — Companies that devote themselves to a broader, more philanthropic mission can reap benefits on the bottom line, according to panelists discussing “conscious capitalism” at the National Retail Federation 101st Annual Convention and Expo here on Tuesday.

“Having a sense of purpose creates alignment between employees, customers and all your stakeholders,” sad Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer, Whole Foods Market (pictured at right, with Jonathan Sokoloff of Leonard Green and Partners, left, and Kip Tindell of The Container Store, center). “Having a higher purpose provides inspiration.”

Whole Foods Market sees itself driven by four “missions” through which it seeks to have a positive impact on the world around it, including evolving the world’s agricultural system, improving the quality of animal care, fighting poverty around the world, and increasing healthy eating.

“Our team members understand why we exist as a company, and they embrace it,” Robb said.

One of the ways the company puts its mission into action is through the Whole Planet Foundation, which is active in 50 different countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America where Whole Foods sources product. The non-profit foundation provides funding for micro-loan organizations and other support for small businesses. The program is open to employees to participate, and will soon be available to customers as well, Robb said.

Empowering employees with more responsibility is a key element of Whole Foods’ approach to its culture, he said. For example, in order to manage labor hours, the company allows each store’s workers — divided into nine teams per store by department — to figure out the best way to staff that department within a given yearly budget.

“When you create the space for people to bring their full involvement and their passion and their whole being to work, it can move the company forward in ways you hadn’t imagined,”    Robb said.

Also participating on the panel were Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, and Jonathan Sokoloff, managing partner at Leonard Green & Partners, which is the largest investor in both Whole Foods and The Container Store.

Tindell also spoke about the virtues of having an “employee-first” culture, saying that it translates into better customer service.

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