A self-described six-time college dropout might seem an odd candidate to become the Bill Gates of the food world. But that's only one of the unorthodox steps that ceo John Mackey, 53, has taken in his path to revolutionizing the grocery industry. His unique approach has transformed Whole Foods Market into a business worth about $9 billion, and its success is not only changing the way Americans think about their food but also forcing the rest of the industry to play catch-up.
While in his early 20s, the still meat-eating Mackey moved into a vegetarian co-op to meet women. His ploy worked, but along with a girlfriend he gained a new way of eating and a new mission in life. With a borrowed $45,000, Mackey opened a small natural-food store in Austin, Texas, in 1978 and did $300,000 in sales the first year. Mackey then proposed a merger with a nearby natural grocery. In 1980 Whole Foods Natural Market, the nation's first natural supermarket, opened. Since then, Whole Foods has expanded rapidly, to 195 stores in the U.S. and Canada, and is moving overseas with a London store, all selling organic veggies, humanely raised meats and even clothing, all produced with equal attention to environmental awareness and profitability.
Mackey, whose salary for 2007 is $1, has combined his "hippie values" with ruthless control of production and profits. Twenty-five years ago, his approach left him on the fringes; now the mainstream is running to catch up with him.