Friday, July 13, 2007

Is Mackey Too Wacky to be CEO?

That excellent question is tackled by Fortune writer Matthew Boyle, as the media continues to come to grips with the spectre of a CEO, John Mackey of Whole Foods, posting anonymously about his company on Yahoo message boards.

"It is time to boot this guy out, but I doubt the board will," he quotes Jeff Sonnenfeld, a "CEO and leadership expert" at the Yale School of Management.

The reason he needs to go, however, is not that he is wacky but that what he did was against the law, including but not limited to Regulation FD. The media finally began to grapple with that elephant in the room, which I dealt with in my post yesterday.

The Wall Street Journal missed the point entirely, comparing Mackey's anonymous posts to signed blogs, which are an entirely different kettle of fish. The New York Times recognized the legal issues, however:

Peter J. Henning, a professor of securities law at Wayne State University in Detroit, said executives of public companies are required to make financial disclosures available to all investors, not just a select few.

“He wasn’t speaking on behalf of the company,” Professor Henning said, adding, “He certainly was talking about it. And he was attempting to influence the stock price.”

After hearing some of Rahodeb’s postings, Professor Henning added, “I would have to believe that Whole Foods’ general counsel nearly keeled over when they learned about this.”

Mackey clearly requires the kind of supine board and see-no-evil corporate counsel employed by that other compulsive message-board user, CEO Patrick Byrne, who also treats Ref. FD as a joke.

So far, both CEOs are blessed with something even greater -- a snoozing SEC.

Herb Greenberg points out that Mackey anonymously attacked him, an interestingly Byrne-esque thing to do.

More reaction:

The White Collar crime blog discusses the possible legal ramifications.

Several commentators noted the obvious Byrne-Mackey parallels. Lee Distad says he

will . . . go out on a limb and say that the Whole Foods story will diverge from the train wreck sooner rather than later. I forsee that John Mackey will be sent packing by his own board, under pressure from regulators and the media.


Because Whole Foods makes money. Because they're successful. Because there will be a lot of concerned parties on Wall Street with a vested interest in making sure that Whole Foods continues to succeed. Now that Mackey has shown what kind of thoughtless, half-cocked decision making he's capable of, he's a liability. Those concerned will want to have him ejected before he does something that scuttles the ship.

Compare that to OSTK, whose vested interests are limited solely to buy-and-hold investors who still believe in Santa Claus, and are still praying that one quarter, any quarter, their baby will show a profit. If your company was as beneath most people's radar as, you might resort to public temper tantrums to get attention too.
Long or Short Capital:

Following in the big clown shoes of Patrick Byrne of (NASDAQ: OSTK), [Mackey] thought it would be a good idea to post to an anonymous stock message board about Whole Foods. The company for which he is the CEO. Protected only by the anonymity of an anagram of his wife’s name. I’m undecided if it’s a better or worse call than being a bat-crazy Quixote in public like Byrne. This is less ethical but more competent as as opposed to more ethical and less competent. But this is decidedley worse than not wearing a condom in Haiti, which is our standard threshold for management competence.

For this focused non-dedication to competent and sensible management, we award John “Rahodeb” Mackey with The Patrick Byrne Award for Operational Focus and Excellence. May all your current and future stockholders be warned.

UPDATE: Evidently the politically-hypersensitive SEC chairman Chris Cox knows how to read. The Wall Street Journal online edition reports today that the SEC has launched an informal inquiry, according to the usual "people familiar with the matter."

One of these days, a cultural anthropologist should track down when "people familiar with the matter" replaced "sources" as a euphemism for "a spokesman for Chris Cox."

© 2007 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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