This article is part of our Rising Stars Portfolio series.
My Rising Star portfolio is designed with a socially responsible spirit in mind. If that sounds a little like bulk granola, well, wait till you check out this month's purchase. I'm buying shares of one of my personal longtime favorites, Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFM ) .
Since 1980, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market has turned the grocery business on its ear, over and over. There was a time when nobody thought a grocer that sold natural, organic foods could ever hope to compete against huge, conventional companies like Safeway (NYSE: SWY ) and Kroger (NYSE: KR ) .
Not only has Whole Foods competed, it's driven many old-school grocers to make major changes in their businesses. If you've ever noticed a conventional grocer remodeled and carrying more gourmet, natural, and organic items, you might look to Whole Foods as a catalyst.
Whole Foods has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to identifying forward-looking trends. It's capitalized off of the gourmet "foodie" trend. It's also been a safe haven for folks searching for local produce, foods free of gluten or genetically modified ingredients, vegan and vegetarian products, meats with animal welfare ratings, transparency in labeling, and all-around healthy eating.
Whole Foods has 300 stores in the U.S. and the U.K., and employs about 54,000 team members. It's highly successful and profitable; in the year ended September 2010, Whole Foods grew sales by 12.1%, to $9 billion, reported a 7.1% increase in same-store sales, and increased net income by 67.5%, to $245.8 million.
Why I'm buying
Whole Foods is quite emblematic of the types of companies I target for this portfolio. Its business takes many stakeholders into account, including workers. Whole Foods team members receive health-care benefits, and the company has an open-book policy on salary. Furthermore, executive compensation is currently capped at 19 times that of the average total compensation of all employees. Whole Foods calls this "shared fate."
This company is serious about how it can benefit the greater world as well as itself. Whole Foods gives at least 5% of its profits to community and nonprofit organizations each year. It also works hard on environmental initiatives; last October, the Environmental Protection Agency awarded Whole Foods a "Green Power Partner of the Year" award. Whole Foods is a three-time winner, and it was the only grocer to gain the recognition in 2010.
Whole Foods' founder and co-CEO John Mackey is a major proponent of the "conscious capitalism" philosophy, and his views comprise a huge component of the company's vision. His passion for Whole Foods's mission has been clear, and he's also well versed in why purpose-driven, stakeholder-friendly enterprises can be major successes on the competitive landscape.
And now, the risks
Whole Foods Market has long been one of the highest-priced grocery stocks out there, so I can understand why those who consider themselves more traditional value investors might shy away. Paying 36 times trailing earnings for a grocer is quite alien to them. Regardless, while stocks with high multiples are always a little risky, I believe that this company has what it takes to surprise us all with its future growth.
Mackey is a visionary, but he can be, er, outspoken. The "Rahodeb" incident in the midst of the Wild Oats antitrust probe was certainly a rough patch in the company's history, and that was a trying time for many of us longtime shareholders. (Not that some Fools didn't lighten it up a little.)
More recently, Mackey's ideas on how to fix the health-care mess in this country caused a ruckus, and even some boycotts. Even further back, Mackey made few friends when he tactfully compared unions to herpes. Still, in a corporate world that's often off the charts on the BS-O-Meter, it's nice to hear some honest and real discussion from a CEO, isn't it?
Last but certainly not least, the grocery business is teeming with competition. Beyond conventional grocers and discounters, we've also got private companies like Trader Joe's and Wegman's, as well as smaller, growing grocers like The Fresh Market (NYSE: TFM ) and Ruddick's (NYSE: RDK ) Harris Teeter. (Thanks to Fool community member RD80 for recently reminding me about Ruddick, since Harris Teeter is another rapidly expanding grocery play.)
Conventional grocers have taken Whole Foods' competitive edge to heart, and they probably try to emulate it in ways that go far beyond minor facelifts in older stores. For example, Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT ) has dabbled in initiatives like trying to increase its local produce, and Safeway recently topped Greenpeace's list of leaders in seafood sustainability.
Foolish bottom line
I wouldn't touch most grocery stocks these days. This sector's heightened riskiness isn't just about normal (and cutthroat) competition but also about major concerns like commodities inflation and shrinking consumer budgets.
Whole Foods' most recent quarter underlined the strength of its business compared with other grocers, though. Its stakeholder-friendly corporate mission and its innovative history of catalyzing major change in an old-school business gives me even more reason to like this stock for the far-off future.
This article is part of our Rising Star Portfolios series, where we give some of our most promising stock analysts cold, hard cash to manage on the Fool's behalf. We'd like you to track our performance and benefit from these real-money, real-time free stock picks. See all of our Rising Star analysts (and their portfolios).