In Defense of John Mackey

The big gossip story on Wall Street the last couple of days is the revelation that John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, posed as a character by the name of “Rahodeb” (an anagram on the name of his wife, Deborah) on Yahoo! stock discussion boards talking up and engaging in debates about Whole Foods’ stock (“Whole Foods Is Hot, Wild Oats A Dud — So Said ‘Rahodeb’: Then Again, Yahoo! Poster Was a Whole Foods Staffer, The CEO To Be Precise” (subscription required), The Wall Street Journal, Front Page, Thursday July 12, 2007; here is the chronological list of the 1394 messages posted by “Rahodeb” over an 8 year or so period). 

Among a lot of debate about Whole Foods itself he also ripped on Wild Oats and said he (John Mackey) looked like a Brookstone model.

The first point I want to make is that this has no relevance to the merger between Whole Foods and Wild Oats, at least from a legal standpoint.  From a public relations standpoint, it’s a nightmare.  And, with antitrust law being so murky, that’s a big deal.  But it shouldn’t be.

But what I want to address in this post is the ethics of what Mackey did.  People are implying that it’s unethical or sneaky.  Some are even suggesting it might be illegal.

One of the key questions is motive: why did Mackey do this? 

Was he trying to influence the stock price and drive it higher? 

Such a contention is ridiculous.  The rants of a character by the name of “Rahodeb” on a lightly travelled, relatively speaking, medium such as Yahoo! stock message boards could have very little effect on the stock a size of Whole Foods. 

If this was his intention there were much better ways to do it.  He could’ve boosted the stock more aggressively in interviews for larger media publications and television.  This would have been seen by a much larger audience and therefore had more of an impact.

The real reason Mackey did this is because he loves Whole Foods and he likes to talk and debate about it.  He found it fun to debate with some members of the general public, get their perspective, play “Devil’s Advocate”, etc….  This is something most of us enjoy on subjects we are passionate about and Mackey is no different.  That’s the best explanation for what he did.

Since his intentions were benign and the consequences insignificant, I don’t see anything wrong with what Mackey did.  It’s titillating to insinuate all these sinister motives to him and he’s a polarizing character because of his independence and outspokenness.  But in the end this is just the everyday gossip that is a part of human nature and serves the ordinary person’s desire to believe that those who are above him in the social hierarchy got there through unethical behavior.

UPDATE (Fri 7/16, 8:45am PST): John Mackey has some comments on his Yahoo! postings on the Whole Foods website he put up on Wednesday (7/11).

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