Whole Foods Market CEO Jason Buechel has what he calls a “lifelong connection to food and agriculture.” He grew up in rural Wisconsin, where his grandparents on both sides worked as dairy farmers. His father was a cheese maker. As a kid, he took part in a 4-H gardening program.
This early agricultural immersion created a food industry impresario. Buechel started out at Accenture, where he helped companies, including Whole Foods, improve their retail operations and technologies. When his contacts at the grocer reached out about filling an opening for chief information officer in 2013, Buechel provided a list of possible candidates. “They reached out again and asked why my name wasn’t on the list,” he recalls. As Whole Foods CIO, his tasks were to get decentralized IT systems on common technology and, after Amazon purchased the company in 2017, to build a delivery service. He became chief operating officer in 2019, and during the pandemic he took the lead on issues such as pivoting from hot food and salad bars to prepackaged options. When cofounder John Mackey stepped down as CEO in 2022, Buechel was the obvious successor. He took over a year ago this month, but first he went on a countrywide “conversation tour,” asking team members to share their feedback. His biggest takeaway, he says, was “to make sure that we continue to be store-centric.”
So how has Buechel’s first year as CEO gone? “I have, in my mind, the best job in the world,” he says.
On the post-pandemic customer:
“Most folks are not back to a five-day workweek in the office. There is a form of hybrid that exists, so [we’re] looking for opportunities for how they look at fill-in meals and how they look at convenience. Some customers will want to make everything from scratch, where we need to provide all the ingredients. Some want ready-to-eat. Some want ready-to-cook that would reduce some of the prep. So it’s making sure we’ve got that whole spectrum available for them. One of the other things that’s been strong for us, post-pandemic, is a lot of customers have wanted to return to routines. For some, grocery shopping is a way to get out of their busy, hectic lives; they enjoy walking around our stores, selecting products they’re going to eat, interacting with our team members. [Our customers] are excited, in a post-pandemic world, to come back and see the experiences that were omitted during that time.”
On the perception that Whole Foods is too expensive:
“We’ve helped invest in lower prices, and one of the ways we’ve done that is through Amazon. We have the highest-quality products in the marketplace; making sure that we have the right price with the right quality ultimately demonstrates value to our customers. I’m really proud of the continued expansion of our [house brand] 365 by Whole Foods Market. We’ve got over 3,000 products today that are affordably priced throughout our stores. I think there are opportunities to shop Whole Foods for any budget.”
We play a very big role in driving sustainable and responsible sourcing in the industry. We’ve obviously led the way within organics ever since we opened our first store in 1980, but we’re continuing to raise the bar in ways that help promote climate-friendly sourcing: things like regenerative agriculture, which we’ve been putting a great deal of investment into, looking at ways in which we can help support our food systems—and specifically our topsoil—and improve conditions so we can continue to source and grow the products that we know today for centuries to come. Making sure that we are serving our environment and ultimately creating sustainable food systems is something that is a very big purpose as we look to nourish people and the planet.”
On the difference between management and leadership:
“Earlier in my career, I saw a lot more management than leadership at different clients I was working with. Oftentimes, as folks are being prepared to step up into leadership roles, the things that they’re taught are the management techniques. One of the things I appreciate about our career development programs is that the leadership pieces are important. You don’t just teach them through reading a book or going through a training course; it’s about being able to discuss principles, concepts, mechanisms, and techniques, practicing them in your role, and ultimately reflecting on it.”