Michael Gilliland, co-founder and CEO of Sunflower Farmers Markets, resigned from the natural and organic retail chain on February 12. The departure followed Gilliland’s arrest on February 10 in Phoenix for allegedly soliciting sex online with someone who identified herself as a minor.
Phoenix police say Gilliland was one of eight men arrested during a child prostitution sting. He faces a charge of felony child prostitution.
Chris Sherrell, Sunflower's president and COO, has been named acting CEO of the company, which operates 32 stores in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Texas.
Sherrell has worked at Sunflower Farmers Market since the company was founded in 2002 by Gilliland and his then-wife, Libby Cook. Bennett Bertoli, a member of Sunflower’s board of directors since 2002, was elected chairman by the company's board. The change in management will not affect Sunflower’s operations or its expansion plans, the company said in a statement.
Gilliland informed Sunflower that he believes he is not guilty of the charges and expects to be exonerated, the company said. "Sunflower appreciates the respect that Mr. Gilliland has shown for the company by his action, so that his personal affairs will not affect the company," Sherrell said in a statement.
Gilliland launched his first natural foods store in Boulder, Colorado, in 1984. Three years later, he and Cook founded Wild Oats Markets, which grew to more than 100 stores in the United States and Canada. Gilliland stepped down as Wild Oat’s CEO in 2001; the company was sold to Whole Foods Market for $565 million in 2007.
ColoradoBiz magazine named Gilliland its “CEO of the year” in 2010.
This is the second public relations challenge for Sunflower Farmers Market in recent weeks. An employee of an Albuquerque Sunflower store was arrested in late January for allegedly contaminating a yogurt sample with semen.