Editors' pick: Originally published Feb. 9.
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Paging well-known activist investors Jeff Smith (Starboard Value) and Bill Ackman (Pershing Square): there is a formerly popular organic grocery store chain in a crisis, and in bad need of some fresh thinking from the outside.
Judging by the latest quarterly results, Whole Foods (WFM) continues to fail at re-establishing itself as the number one destination for any organic item that a consumer wants to stock at home. The retailer said on Wednesday same-store sales declined 2.4% for the fiscal first quarter, despite stepped-up promotions in produce, meat and dairy to be more competitive with its new rivals. Earnings badly missed estimates by $0.09 a share and executives chopped their full-year outlook.
Even as it continued to lower prices on consumer staples -- which are supposed to be traffic drivers -- Whole Foods saw the number of transactions decline a stunning 3.9%. Its same-store sales have now fallen in six straight quarters, according to Bloomberg data.
Through the first five weeks of the second quarter, things have actually gotten worse for Whole Foods, as same-store sales were down 3.2%. The company blamed the weather for the awful start to the second quarter -- but this guy isn't buying it, especially from a management team that has lost all credibility and in light of now deeply embedded negative traffic trends. For good measure, Whole Food shocked everyone by saying it closed nine stores (once unthinkable), calling into question the past five years of aggressive store openings (100 or so in past three years, many of which are larger locations) and the brand's longer-term potential.
The very apparent stumbles raise an obvious question: is Whole Foods' 12-member board providing the proper checks and balances, especially given two years of dreadful performance? The company moved to address this three months ago, by shifting then co-CEO Walter Robb into a senior adviser role. Yet, he is still on the board. Meanwhile, Whole Foods founder John Mackey is now CEO and also on the board.
Many of Whole Foods board members have served since the early-to-mid-2000s. Two of the directors, Ralph Z. Sorenson and John B. Elstrott, who is chairman, have been on Whole Foods board since the early 1990s. In addition to the board's long tenureship, a strong argument could be made they lack the proper experience to provide the right type of guidance to a struggling grocery retailer.
So, how is this board composition not in need of a complete overhaul?
Under the watch of a well-entrenched group of directors, last fall Whole Foods announced a $300 million annual cost savings goal by September 2017, partly by eliminating more than 2,000 jobs. But given the headwinds on profit margins caused by greater competition and the shift toward digital shopping, Whole Foods likely needs more drastic cost-cutting actions -- a more measured approach to new store openings (which it slightly signaled on Wednesday), and a re-think on the size of its stores and number of goods it carries (it's dead-set on having 1,200 stores over time).
To be sure, these things would have to be undertaken by a new Chief Financial Officer. Remember that Whole Foods Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Glenda Flanagan plans to retire from the role after 29 years at the end of Whole Foods upcoming fiscal year in September. No successor was named (a major knock on Whole Foods board, Mackey and Robb), and it's unclear if one has been groomed by Flanagan to assume the position.
An activist investor could certainly kick badly needed operational change at Whole Foods into high gear, beyond just parting ways with a CEO and CFO, while at the same time pushing for board seats. For Whole Food's sake, it better hope activists Smith and Ackman have run some analyses on the company and are poised to finally strike.