Walter Robb talks about recovering from COVID-19 and crisis leadership

On the mend from a difficult case of COVID-19, Walter Robb says the natural product industry has a lot to learn in the pandemic.

Rick Polito, Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

March 31, 2020

11 Min Read
Walter Robb talks about recovering from COVID-19 and crisis leadership

Walter Robb knows a little about managing a crisis. As Co-president of Whole Foods Market during the Great Recession, he had to manage plunging in-store sales just as e-commerce was finding its stride in natural products. Now he knows something about the coronavirus. We reached Robb days after leaving the hospital as he recovered from COVID-19 infection with the coronavirus. We talked about the virus, the economic crisis and what leadership will mean as the natural products industry and the world face both.

You’re recovering from COVID-19 right now. What do people need to know about it?

Walter Robb: I think different people take it a different level of seriousness, but I'm here to tell you it's real. I'm a healthy, strong dude, pretty tough, but this thing took me to my knees. I had been at home, just powering up on supplements and building up my immunity and trying to tough it through, thinking my body would fight. Then, finally on March 23, they wanted me to go the hospital, which I did for three days to stabilize. My personal physician was able to get the drug hydroxychloroquine that was proven to work in China and South Korea. And I was pounding supplements—vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, magnesium, just the whole suite—because my doctor is a functional medicine doctor. It still hit like a ton of bricks. My fever was 103. Each day's been a little bit better. I'm isolated a home for a few more days, even from my family. I would just say ‘Look, take this thing seriously. It's real.’

Do you have a sense of how the natural products industry is reacting to the coronavirus?

WR: We’re doing what we always do, which is trying to find a way to pull together. Gary Hirschberg is setting up some webinars with different entrepreneurs. Various folks have held calls with CEOs to help them share and think this through. My sense is that folks are finding a way to stay connected in some way shape or form to share the stories, share encouragement, share tips and ideas about how to navigate through this.

Some of this, of course, is health care stuff, like you know what do you do, what do you know, what does this thing look like, what does it actually do? Some of it is financial around steps you need to take for your business. And some of it's just leadership: your responsibility for your team and to the community. Those sorts of conversations are helpful, because as we’ve isolated, we're still human beings and we want that connection. I think it's difficult not being in touch with one another. Everybody is Zoom’ing up a storm. I think staying connected, whether it's on Instagram or whether it's on any sort of platform is helpful to feeling like we're going to find our way through this together.

What do you think companies need to know about leadership during this crisis?

WR: I think leadership is everything. I think leadership is essential. In any different time, a moment will call for leadership, but you never know exactly when that moment will come. Leadership's a wonderful thing day-in and day-out, but in these sorts of moments, leadership is that ability to provide an uplift for example, a caring. That’s just essential right now. Those who have that quality and that ability, they need to lead in terms of helping their own team understand what steps they are going to take. The team needs to see the calm. They need to feel like somebody's got a sense of where they're going and is thinking about their well-being, thinking about the well-being of the company, thinking about the well-being of the country, so they can have some confidence that you know we're going to find our way through this, as dark as the days may seem sometime and disorienting as it may be. This is the time you must find the strength and leadership. It's really at the core of everything I'm here in whatever role that you're in.

Retailers are playing a huge role in a radically transformed American Life. What would you like to see them do?

WR: In our business, we're in the healthy food business, the healthy products business and the healthy supplements business and our premise is that if you use our products you will lead a healthier life and therefore you will have greater human immunity, greater health and greater strength. So, whether you're a brand, whether you're a retailer, whether you're a distributor, however you play a part in this, your job is to continue to remind people that these things that we're doing can help them build that greater proactive health strength. I think the retailer’s job is to provide these products at a fair price, to provide the information associated with the products and to provide the service.

Can you recall a challenge that tested you in terms of leadership? What did you learn from that?

WR: The nature of the business is that it’s not a straight line. You wake up in the morning and you are by nature looking to see what’s going to come at you from left, right or behind you. That’s just the way the world works. If you think otherwise, you’re not really experienced in business. I think about the Great Recession. I never knew where the bottom one was. In other words, the sales kept falling, and falling and falling. We were a pretty large company, and we had to try to sort out what decisions do we make and how do we make them. This is where you put your pure values. We knew we had to do something, because the world had changed. Our revenue was not the same. We didn't have folks coming in and no one had the money anyways, so they weren’t spending. We tried to put ourselves on the line first. We cut our own salaries and froze our benefits. We said we weren’t going to reduce jobs in the store, but we did reduce jobs at the headquarters. We looked at any other way we could cut costs. And we stopped building stores, which was a big savings for cash. You have got to manage for cash, you’ve got to keep your liquidity in place, in whatever fashion that you do that. Thinking back to that experience, we had to make a bunch of hard choices and we had to make them quickly. We had to continue to make them until we could get to a place where we felt like we could sustain ourselves, even at the lower sales level. That challenges you to the core because one easy place to cut in a business is your team. In our industry, which has some values, people tend to think differently about it and be creative—‘What other business can I create so that I don't have to do that?’ In the end, leadership is doing what's best for all the team members.

How does crisis challenge teams and working relationships, and what are some of the opportunities in that?

WR: Crisis will challenge teams. Any sort of tensions, any sort of disagreements or any sort of shortness of temper or patience will come out in those conversations. But they can also bring teams together. They can also tie people together in a greater common cause and they can bind teams together. This is our sense of belonging. The team has become the way that you help to define yourself and keep your social identity intact. It’s not about any one person. It's about the team itself and I learned that lesson. During times like this, take advantage of working together, drawing on the different people strengths, bringing people closer together, deepening the sense of purpose and reason that you are working toward and dedicate yourself to serving your people.

You have introduced many people in natural products to the concept of authentic leadership. Can you offer a quick definition?

WR: Authentic leadership becomes easier as you get older. You begin to accept yourself more because you've been through some ups and downs. Life has kicked you around a little bit, and you've deepened. Authentic leadership for me is being a leader who is authentic. People on your team and the people in your company feel like you are a person who can relate to the things they have going on in their life. If they don't feel like you can relate to them, why would they follow you? Authentic leadership at the core means being authentic to yourself.

Why is authentic leadership so important during a crisis?

WR: One of the number of lessons I've learned as a leader is that in times like these the most important thing is the communication, communicating constantly, frequently, openly, honestly and truthfully. Team members in my experience can handle it. If you will tell them the truth. That means the good and the bad. If you will tell them the truth, and you tell them that you care, and you give them the information, they will do the work around processing it and they will accept it. It's when you give them half truths, not the right information and not on time, and you do it from a place of not really caring, that’s when organizations split apart. Authenticity simply means that you've done your work as a person to become authentic, to become someone who knows who they are, and you're not trying to be somebody else and you stand true to that in the way that you lead. They will listen to you and they will follow because they believe you’re being authentic.

Are you seeing examples of authentic leadership right now?

WR: What I'm telling you is true at any time, for any, any leader. But if someone's been inauthentic, they’re not going to all of a sudden become authentic now. You see some of those folks who have real gifts but they're very flawed as leaders. I don't think it helps to mention any particular names, but you're seeing a lot of flawed leadership out there right now, stuff that is self-centered leadership. It's not authentic and it's not helpful. And yet, you also see who people respond to, like Dr Fauci. They're responding to the dude because he just kind of shoots straight and he knows what he's talking about him. So there's an example of somebody leading authentically right now. He is just up there again himself and being pretty consistent. 

Are there examples in the natural products industry?

WR: My friends at Hungry, which is an office catering company in Washington, DC supporting local chefs, pivoted to doing ‘hungry at home.’ Kirsten Richmond at Revolution Foods makes affordable healthy food for school kids and she pivoted to serve kids in the inner cities. Again, part of what I think sets our industry apart is that we have always had an ability and a willingness to serve and to do good things from a mission perspective. I hope you will tell some of the stories of how companies even in the tough times are finding ways to serve and support the greater sense of community.

How do you see the natural products industry emerging from this in X number of months.

WR: X is the key there. History is on our side. Our fundamental thesis is correct. I started in 1978 in this business with my first little store. So, I've seen the time it takes for this to become accepted, but I would argue that the idea that food and the quality of food matters to your health has now become a mainstream idea. Your lifestyle is the most powerful thing you have if you desire a healthy future. Do you want to take it into your own hands and take care of that or do you want to go with the other way and bounce around the health care system which is extremely expensive and not that effective, certainly no replacement for keeping yourself healthy. We now have a new generation of entrepreneurs that are ready to give brief life into that and bring reality to that and keep bringing their brands and their products and experiences to market. There was an article on CNN basically reminding people that one of the ways you build immunity is through your healthy diet. I'd like to see us as an industry not only making sure we're looking after our own, which is to say somebody's staying on top of these programs and making sure all the information is available to our membership to help them through these times with their business, but that we are also thinking about how we reemerge with a message around the power of natural foods, broadly speaking, and a healthy lifestyle.

About the Author(s)

Rick Polito

Editor-in-chief, Nutrition Business Journal

As Nutrition Business Journal's editor-in-chief, Rick Polito writes about the trends, deals and developments in the natural nutrition industry, looking for the little companies coming up and the big money coming in. An award-winning journalist, Polito knows that facts and figures never give the complete context and that the story of this industry has always been about people.

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