Walter RobbWalter Robb has shared the title of co-CEO with Whole Foods Market founder John Mackey since 2010, though this past year has seen him emerge as the point person on many of the natural food retailer’s most visible initiatives.

In March, he led company executives in announcing a new policy requiring labeling of GMO products by the end of 2018. The news galvanized an industry that had become bogged down on the issue.

"It took courage for us to do that and I am proud that we made the decision," Robb said in his first-ever interview with SN. "I would argue that the arc of history has been set and I don’t think we’ll be moving backwards on this issue."

Just last month, it was Robb who helped snip the opening-day ribbon at the chain’s first-ever store in inner-city Detroit.

"It says that we’re a company willing to stretch, and I’m proud of that aspect," said Robb, adding that a similar urban location is slated to open in December in mid-city New Orleans. "We’re willing to take risks and explore the potential we have to make a better world."

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For these and similar reasons, Robb is replacing Mackey on SN’s Power 50 list for the first time, an acknowledgement of his increasingly visible role as the business face of Whole Foods, while Mackey focuses on larger big-picture issues, pursues book writing and builds the retailer’s many health initiatives.

"People wonder about this arrangement," Robb said of the partnership. "But in a 21st century environment where its much more about collaboration and cooperation it surprises me that people dont realize [these qualities] should extend to the organizational chart as well."

Both Robb and Mackey as well as Whole Foods veteran leadership team can take credit for the chains stellar performance over the past year. In its most recent quarter, the retailer posted a 6.9% increase in same-store sales while profits rose 20% to $142 million, or 76 cents a share. Sales for the current quarter are running at a healthy 9% extraordinary for a company that had to cut store growth in half and seriously retool its high-priced, premium image after the recession.


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The all-around positive numbers propelled the company up two spots from last year’s Power 50 list.

"We’re at a size and scale now where we’ve got the structure and some resources," Robb said. "We have a strong balance sheet and a great to be able to take advantage of all this."

The coming year isn’t without challenges: IPOs are fueling the growth of natural channel competitors like Sprouts Farmers Market and Natural Grocers by Vitamin Cottage, among others.

There’s also the looming shadow of AmazonFresh, which recently expanded to its first market outside of Seattle. Robb said the company expects to have news relating to digital shopping and home delivery by the end of this year.

"Think about Whole Foods like a group of ducks," he said. "We’ve got our feathers lined up above the water, but underneath we’re paddling pretty aggressively."

 

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