In another notable development in the skirmish between Whole Foods Market
The FTC may have managed to shake some people's confidence in CEO John Mackey with its revelation about his anonymous online behavior, but it doesn't seem as though the FTC is doing a very good job of giving consumers much reason to be confident in its behavior, either.
Feeling a bit sensitive these days
According to the Associated Press, some electronic documents were released without certain sensitive sections blacked out, so it was temporarily possible for news agencies to obtain the information before the error was fixed. This not-so-insignificant blunder is probably a bit disturbing to consumers who also happen to be stakeholders (and that includes investors, employees, and suppliers) of any companies that might seek acquisitions. Is it OK, after all, that the FTC gets sloppy with sensitive information, some of which may not even be that closely tied to its case?
Whole Foods now says it's investigating the FTC's treatment of the sensitive data, and it has also extended the deadline for its tender offer to Aug. 20 -- the sixth time it has extended that deadline.
The AP revealed some of the information that was released before the error was fixed, including the "Project Goldmine" strategy -- Whole Foods' hypothesis that acquiring Wild Oats would result in 80% to 90% of Wild Oats' customers coming into its fold and ultimately increasing Whole Foods' revenues in related stores by 85% to 90%. The information also revealed that Whole Foods is attempting to make arrangements with suppliers to drive up costs for Wal-Mart
A Whole Foods spokeswoman denied knowledge of some of this information, such as how many Wild Oats stores might close, or the supplier bit, but none of it sounds outlandish under the normal course of competition. Of course Whole Foods is hoping to gain a large number of Wild Oats' customers by acquiring the grocer -- isn't that the point? And if it angers those customers with higher prices, they can go elsewhere for organics, or even return to conventional foods.
Does the FTC think it's diabolical that Whole Foods targets areas with a large portion of college-educated folks, who are often more affluent? Lots of companies do that, especially if they sell high-end products or have a philosophical mission as Whole Foods does. Somehow, I can't imagine companies like Tiffany
Speaking of which, please pardon me if I don't shed a tear for Wal-Mart. Its reputation for playing extreme hardball with its suppliers is very well known, and Whole Foods' power and reach pales in comparison with Wal-Mart's 4,000-plus discount stores, Supercenters, Sam's Clubs, and "neighborhood markets" across the U.S. alone. Anybody with any sense of the competitive spirit inherent in our system would probably wish the little Davids of the world luck against that kind of Goliath.
As an aside, I can't help theorizing that some Whole Foods suppliers might not even want to distribute through Wal-Mart. From a cold academic and economic approach, that might seem illogical, but authenticity and philosophical mission are things that come into play with many organic goods, and I have a feeling Wal-Mart is the antithesis of where many suppliers would want their goods to show up.
Down + dirty = distraction
All that said, I'm hoping for quick resolution. I have realized over the past few months that I believe in Whole Foods' long-term outlook regardless of whether it acquires Wild Oats, and I've long hoped this would be a short interlude. The distraction and the expense of mud-wrestling with the government is not something I wish to see prolonged in a company whose shares I own, even if I do feel the situation is unfair.
After all, from the get-go, the FTC's complaints against the acquisition have seemed bizarre and senseless -- the type of thing that probably makes most of us wish we could better direct how our representatives represent our interests. I'm pretty sure most of us consumers can think of some other, much more anticompetitive deals that have gone through with nary a whimper of protest, and judging by the reader email I received earlier this summer, I know I'm not the only one who didn't think much of the FTC's actions on this one, especially considering that we've been immersed in such an M&A-happy climate lately.
While the FTC may have gotten some perverse pleasure in finding something to stick Mackey with, in the form of his anonymous discussion board postings (and the information certainly did give Whole Foods investors something tough to chew on), I can't get past how the agency still seemed to revel more in the act of mudslinging than in actually making a logical case for why the Whole Foods/Wild Oats deal is truly anticompetitive.
That's a funny thing about slinging mud: You can get pretty muddy yourself.
Get up to speed on the whole story:
- I thought CEO John Mackey's anonymous postings constituted less-than-savory behavior, but Bill Mann pointed out that hey, we already knew he had an ego.
- In June, I poked fun at the idea that Whole Foods is building an evil empire.