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Our Fourth Nominee for CEO of the Year: John Mackey & Walter Robb

By Sean Williams – Oct 9, 2012 at 9:50AM

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Is the dynamic duo of John Mackey and Walter Robb good enough for CEO of the Year? Soon your vote will decide!

My praise and contempt for CEO actions is pretty well known around these parts. I've been running a weekly series looking at CEO gaffes for nearly 10 months now (with seemingly endless material, may I add), and recently I've begun highlighting incredible CEOs who deserve a pat on the back. Last year I even listed my top 10 CEOs of the year and my 10 worst CEOs of the year.

However, this year we're changing things up a bit, and we're putting the ball in your court! This year, The Motley Fool community is going to decide who the best CEO of the year is, and which CEO should be banished to a distant island.

Each week, over the remaining five weeks, I'm going to highlight one CEO who's worthy of being the best CEO of 2012, as well as a CEO who could easily be called the worst of 2012. In total, you and your community members will have eight great CEOs and eight terrible ones to choose from when voting commences in November. For reference, here is last week's best CEO nominee.

In the meantime, I encourage you to get the discussion started on the CEO of the Week board. Although I do have all CEOs hand-picked already, these selections are by no means set in stone. If you can offer me your top picks for best and worst CEO, as well as your reasoning, you may just find your nomination in the spotlight.

Without further ado, I give you the fourth nominee(s) for CEO of the Year: John Mackey and Walter Robb, the dynamic duo that heads up Whole Foods Market (WFM).

Why John Mackey and Walter Robb?

  • Whole Foods is crushing its peers: Pitting Whole Foods against traditional grocers is like pitting the Los Angeles Lakers against a high school basketball team -- it's not even going to be a match-up. Whole Foods has completely dominated its peers by passing along price increases to consumers and taking advantage of their move toward healthier eating habits. Simply put, consumers who request organic and natural food options are often willing to pay more for them. Traditional grocer SUPERVALU (SVU) has struggled mightily with debt and remodel costs while Safeway (NYSE: SWY) hasn't exactly seen its focus on fuel stations translate into consumer purchasing growth, thanks to rapid food inflation. Whole Foods, on the other hand, consistently produces profit margins that trounce its peers. On a trailing-12-month basis, Whole Foods' 3.84% may not seem like much, but in a sector where inches count, it's beating Safeway's 1.23%, Kroger's (KR -1.22%) 0.65%, and SUPERVALU's negative figure by a mile!
  • The stock is on fire: Efficiency is usually rewarded by investors, and Whole Foods investors have enjoyed a fantastic year, in spite of record corn prices and overall high levels of food inflation. SUPERVALU has performed miserably, down more than 70%, with the company's long-term viability now in question. Kroger and Safeway have been vacillating around the breakeven point. "How has Whole Foods done?" you ask? It's only up 45% while consumer spending is falling... that's all! Inclusive of dividends, Whole Foods' share price has returned 18.4% on average over the trailing-10-year period.
  • Say hello to rising dividends: Whole Foods' dividend isn't exactly going to be a selling point on the company, with current yield being only 0.6%, but it's worth noting that shareholders unwrapped a 40% payout pop shortly after the new year, with quarterly stipends rising to $0.14 from $0.10. Whole Foods has never been a dividend juggernaut, but with a payout ratio of just 22%, it could reasonably raise that payout in the future.
  • These two care about their employees: Very few companies are as employee-friendly as Whole Foods; it remains one of the driving forces of their growth, their employee retention, and the overall satisfaction of its employees. Whole Foods has policies in place that pay for nearly all of its employees' health care costs and that include retirement savings plans. In addition to numerous other employee perks, executive compensation is capped at just 19 times the average annual salary within the company, with Mackey taking home a $1 salary each year since 2006 because of what he refers to as the "joy of the work itself." These leaders care, plain and simple, and it translates into the bottom-line results.
  • ...and their community: Not only does Whole Foods care about its employees, but it cares about the communities that it operates within on multiple levels. Like Kroger, which is known for its hefty donations, Whole Foods regularly gives in excess of 5% of its net income in donations each year, as well as setting up partnerships with developing-world communities and giving its employees time for community volunteering. On top of this, think about what Whole Foods does for its communities with regard to bringing in healthier food options that are often locally grown. Like Whole Foods, Annie's (NYSE: BNNY) originally relied on its local community to boost sales of its organic and natural products. Nowadays, both companies work hand in hand to bring healthier food options to people around the world.

Do John Mackey and Walter Robb make it as co-CEOs of the year? That's going to be up to you and the rest of The Motley Fool community to decide. In the meantime, come back on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the next five weeks for the latest CEO nominations, and be sure to hit up the CEO of the Week board to voice your opinion to the community.

Curious what Whole Foods has up its sleeve next to keep its grocery stores fresh and keep customers coming in the door? Find out the answer to this question by getting your copy of our latest premium research report on Whole Foods. Crammed with in-depth and unbiased analysis on the opportunities and pitfalls facing Whole Foods -- and complete with a year of regular updates -- this report will give you the tools needed to make smart long-term investing decisions. Click here to claim your investing edge!

Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He loves giving credit when credit is due. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market and SUPERVALU. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods Market and buying calls on SUPERVALU. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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