A Conversation with Walter Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market
Walter Robb, former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market, spent much of the last 25 years building that company from a budding national chain into the grocery giant that ultimately was acquired by Amazon in 2017 for $13.7 billion. After seeing through the acquisition, Robb left the company to form Stonewall Robb Advisors, where he is an investor, mentor, and adviser to the next generation of American food companies.
In July, he joined S2G Ventures as an executive in residence. S2G is a multistage fund that supports food and agriculture entrepreneurs.
“I'm excited because I've been a grocer and operator all my life, but this is a values-based firm focused on building an entire system from seed to growth,” Robb explains.
He'll be helping S2G evaluate companies and mentor CEOs. What's his top piece of advice for these entrepreneurs? “Make sure you understand why you're in business,” Robb says. “What's the purpose? It's not just about making money. It's about impact in the world. Companies need to be clear about what that purpose is. It gives them motivation to innovate, and it creates excitement.”
This focus on company values was one of the keys to Whole Foods' success. But Robb and other company leaders also made many savvy business decisions along the way, including how they managed their commercial real estate.
“We realized the power of partnership, and we found developers who were willing to think outside of the box and solve problems,” he says. “Whole Foods never cookie-cuttered its stores. They were all individualized based on location.”
Reflecting on obstacles the company encountered in leasing space, he cites the process of opening a 59,000-sf store on Columbus Circle in the heart of New York City in 2004. “Who had ever heard of a grocery store with no parking before that?” Robb says.
Parking or no parking, every time Whole Foods signed a lease, the value of the property seemed to rise. He credits expert site selection and the company's ability to consistently draw traffic to its stores, which benefited the surrounding area.
“I love building a beautiful store and creating an experience and a feeling of community that can't be found online,” Robb says.
That in part explains why Amazon was so interested in acquiring Whole Foods. “They wanted that physical presence,” he adds. “It completed their ecosystem.”
Robb will explore the implications of Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods, the future of corporate site selection, and other topics when he appears as the keynote speaker at the CCIM Global Conference on Oct. 9 in Chicago. Learn more at conference.ccim.com.