Amazon is stacking Whole Foods with execs to weave it into Jeff Bezos' broader vision

Key Points
  • Amazon has rapidly implemented changes in its retail operations since buying Whole Foods for $13.7 billion last year.
  • Some high-level Whole Foods executives have left, and Amazon has altered relationships with suppliers.
  • A year ago Mackey joked that he was with Amazon "until death do us part."
Amazon stacking Whole Foods with its own executives
Amazon stacking Whole Foods with its own executives

A year after Amazon's $13.7 billion purchase of Whole Foods, the organic grocer's outspoken CEO, John Mackey, remains at the helm.

But Amazon isn't leaving Mackey, who co-founded Whole Foods in 1980, in control of the integration or the future of the business. According to an organization chart viewed by CNBC, Mackey is working alongside two Amazon executives, Rosanna Godden and Heather Dystrup-Chiang, to ensure a smooth transition.

The org chart also paints a clearer picture of Amazon's priorities. Rather than reporting directly to Jeff Wilke, the CEO of Amazon's worldwide consumer business, Mackey, Godden and Dystrup-Chiang work under Steve Kessel. He is in charge of all physical store operations, including Amazon's bookstores and cashierless convenience stores as well as Prime Now, Fresh delivery and Kessel's expanded role was covered by The Wall Street Journal late last year.

The management structure shows that, far from letting Mackey run Whole Foods as an independent operation, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is stacking the business with veterans of the e-commerce company who can weave the grocery chain's 484 stores into his broader vision for the future of physical retail.

It's the latest industry Bezos is working to overhaul by fundamentally changing how people do business. After making internet commerce more convenient than actual shopping, Amazon uprooted the IT market with cloud infrastructure, brought books onto electronic devices and put a voice-powered personal assistant in our living room.

"We see Amazon as transforming Whole Foods, via an iterative process," wrote Tom Forte, an analyst at DA Davidson, in a report in April. "In the future, we believe it will implement its Amazon Go technology at its stores, which enables consumers to purchase products without seeing a cashier." Forte has a "buy" rating on the stock.

Expanding physical retail

Godden, who's worked at Amazon since 2012 and was most recently a senior manager in corporate development, became vice president of strategic business integration at Whole Foods in March, according to her LinkedIn profile. Dystrup-Chiang has been at Amazon for seven years and is now director of product management for Whole Foods (though her LinkedIn page still says she works in devices).

Amazon and Whole Foods representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.

Whole Foods is by far Amazon's largest acquisition in its 24-year history. It marked the company's boldest effort yet to beat brick-and-mortar retail at its own game. Right away, Amazon started cutting prices on certain food items and placing its Echo devices prominently in the front of Whole Foods locations.

At the same time, Amazon has been experimenting with other physical operations. That includes over a dozen bookstores, the Amazon Go mini-grocery, and opening pop-up stores across the country for consumers to test and buy Amazon gadgets.

Whole Foods to meet with vendors over brand relations
Whole Foods to meet with vendors over brand relations

Whole Foods is clearly integral to the company's retail future, but meshing with Amazon has had its early challenges. Greg Greeley, a former vice president of Prime, briefly changed jobs to help the Whole Foods integration earlier this year. That job didn't last long, and he soon left to join Airbnb in March.

The Wall Street Journal reported in March on an exodus underway at Whole Foods, with more than a dozen executives leaving since the acquisition. And according to a report on Thursday from Business Insider, Mackey recently told employees that he's had "many, many" clashes with Amazon.

It's far from the cheery attitude Mackey portrayed at a town hall meeting with Amazon executives on June 16, 2017, just after the deal was announced.

When asked by an employee about executive leadership changes, Wilke told the audience, "John will continue to be the CEO." Mackey replied, "Until death do us part," which was followed by laughter.

There are plenty of other changes that have taken place at the combined company in the year since Wilke and Mackey joined each other on stage.

Prime member discounts and delivery options at Whole Foods were widely publicized. But there were other alterations, regarding financial disclosures and supplier relationships, that got less attention because they weren't targeted at consumers.

Source: Whole Foods

For example, while Amazon paid $13.7 billion for Whole Foods, it's actually on the hook for an additional $22 billion in contractually obligated future purchases, according to public filings.

The purchase commitments, which Amazon describes as "firm, non-cancellable," appeared in Whole Foods' financial statement for the first time in November. They are almost entirely tied to Whole Foods' contract with its largest supplier, United Natural Foods, based on CNBC estimates and prior filings.

The commitment runs until 2025, an unusually long tie-up for Amazon, which is known for signing short-term contracts with its suppliers.

On top of that, Amazon allocated roughly 70 percent of the acquisition price to goodwill, or the amount Amazon paid above what's valued on Whole Foods' balance sheet. That suggests Amazon is paying more for the opportunity to expand in the grocery market than for Whole Foods' existing business, experts say.

Amazon also started to break out sales from "physical stores" for the first time in October. The numbers show that almost all of its physical store sales are coming from Whole Foods, meaning all those bookstores and pop-ups aren't generating material revenue. In its most recent quarter, Amazon reported $4.3 billion in physical store sales.

Supplier management

Under Amazon's umbrella, Whole Foods is taking more control over the sourcing of products.

Based on a new supplier agreement, which was obtained by CNBC, Whole Foods is bringing product displays in house and no longer using outside brokers to do the work of making sure there are enough snacks on the shelf or keeping the freshest dairy items on the top rack. Suppliers are the ones footing the bill, as Amazon is charging them 3 to 5 percent of sales to fund the new service. The change was first reported by The Washington Post earlier this year.

"By centralizing the work, we will minimize the complexity of coordination across numerous suppliers and brokers," Don Clark, Whole Foods' global vice president of merchandising, wrote in the agreement.

And in a move that was planned before the acquisition, Whole Foods has also centralized the way it buys food products from suppliers, giving more control to the company's Austin headquarters than to local stores.

For suppliers, just like for Whole Foods executives, many of these changes are disruptive and may leave them wondering where Amazon is going in the future.

In other words, they're learning what it's like doing business with Bezos.

Jeff Bezos is so much bigger than Amazon — a look at his extraordinary empire
Jeff Bezos is so much bigger than Amazon — a look at his extraordinary empire