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Whole Foods retools

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AUSTIN, Texas — Whole Foods Market Inc. unveiled a sweeping overhaul of its leadership structure on May 10, replacing five directors, naming a new board chair and making official the hiring of a new chief financial officer.

The management shake-up came as the retailer faced intense pressure from restless investors. The moves were described as part of the company’s “accelerated path to delivering shareholder value.”

Whole Foods chief executive officer John Mackey also outlined several initiatives aimed at helping the company he cofounded in 1978 meet newly stated financial goals for 2020 that aim to satisfy shareholders who have become increasingly impatient with the grocer’s stagnating sales.

“We are accelerating our path to enhanced value creation to deliver better returns for our shareholders,” Mackey said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is a powerful combination of accelerated initiatives and new cost savings with clear time lines to deliver.”

Initiatives identified by Mackey include introduction of a customer loyalty program currently being tested in Philadelphia and Dallas to all of its U.S. stores by the end of 2017; increased reliance on data analytics to guide purchasing decision, with a goal of “lower costs, lower prices and higher sales”; and $300 million in cost savings by the end of 2020.

The company also pledged to buy back $1.2 billion in shares.

Mackey’s 2020 plan foresees sales of $18 billion, up from about $16 billion last year; comparable-store sales increasing by 2% or more; and cash flow from operations of more than $1.2 ­billion.

The initial response from analysts was positive. J.P. Morgan Securities said the company made numerous “intelligent moves,” while Deutsche Bank Securities characterized the newcomers that Whole Foods had brought in as “the ‘A’ team.”

The new CFO is Keith Manbeck, who arrives from the Kohl’s department store chain, where since 2014 he has been senior vice president of digital finance, strategy management and business transformation.

Gabrielle Sulzberger, a private equity executive and a Whole Foods board member since 2003, was named the board’s new chairwoman.

The new board members are Ken Hicks, former CEO of Foot Locker; Joe Mansueto, the founder and chairman of Morningstar; Sharon McCollam, former CFO of Best Buy; Scott Powers, a former vice president of State Street Corp.; and Ron Shaich, the founder, chairman and co-CEO of Panera Bread Co.

Departing as board members are John Elstrott, William Tindell III, Morris Siegel, Jonathan Sokoloff and Ralph Sorenson.

“The five new independent directors have distinguished track records as value creators and as experienced leaders,” Sulzberger remarked.

“Our new directors join a board that is focused on being responsive to our shareholders and is committed to achieving the significant opportunities ahead.”

But Jana Partners, the hedge fund that holds a nearly 9% stake in Whole Foods and went public with its criticism of the direction of the company last month, asserted that the new board members lack the grocery industry experience needed to oversee a turnaround.

Jana Partners had proposed a slate of four directors that it argued were needed to revitalize Whole Foods and restore its primacy among purveyors of organic and natural food.

Whole Foods countered with an offer to accept two of the hedge fund’s nominees if Jana Partners would refrain from publicly agitating for change for two years, an offer the investor group rejected.

Jana Partners had also called on Whole Foods to consider putting itself up for sale, an option endorsed by mutual fund manager Neuberger Berman, which owns just under 3% of the ­company.

News reports have identified as possible buyers the Kroger Co. and Albertsons Cos. grocery chains as well as online retail behemoth Amazon.com Inc.

The management overhaul was made on the same day Whole Foods released its second quarter earnings report. Total sales increased 1.1% to a record $3.7 billion despite a 2.8% decline in comparable-store sales and a 3% drop in the number of transactions in the period. The company attributed the declines in part to Easter falling in the company’s third quarter this year.

Whole Foods has 465 stores in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. In February the company said it no longer sees the potential for expanding its flagship chain to 1,200 ­locations.


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