Companies & Industries

Hail to the Chief Eccentric Officers


Whole Foods' John Mackey is typical of a new breed of downright peculiar chief execs whose personalities are lightning rods for the companies they run

For years, Whole Foods (WFMI) founder and Chief Executive Officer has preached corporate openness and integrity. He has even gone so far as to place a list of salaries in each store so that all employees can see what any co-worker is paid—from the person in the corner suite to workers at the cash register. But Mackey's nothing-to-hide image recently took a serious dent thanks to one of the former hippie's other notable personality traits: his unpredictability.

Responding to government queries about Whole Foods' plan to aquire rival natural foods chain Wild Oats, Whole Foods disclosed that Mr. Transparency had been posting missives on a Yahoo! (YHOO) message board for years under the name Rahodeb, praising Whole Foods and denigrating the rival it hopes to buy. It's still unclear whether Mackey's online alter ego has broken any laws. But the scandal could cost him his job, as shareholders have begun calling for Mackey's ouster (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/17/07, "What's Rotten at Whole Foods"),

Mackey was never your run-of-the-mill CEO. No Brooks Brothers suits for him. His outfit of choice is often shorts and hiking boots. He flies coach and does without a limousine. The longtime vegan doesn't partake of Whole Foods' extensive selection of meat and dairy products.

Of course, unusual personalities are hardly unusual in the corner office. There are plenty of Type A egocentrics who have risen to the top. But there's driven and outspoken—and then there's surprising, startling, and downright kooky. Which can be good. In the business world, a reputation for loose lips or public antics can be a promotional asset, making regular headlines that draw attention to a brand. For better or worse, Mackey's idiosyncratic management style has helped Whole Foods grow into a $5 billion purveyor of natural and organic foods. But good press can easily turn to bad. As the Mackey situation has shown, one misstep can transform the wacky CEO from asset to potential liability.

BusinessWeek has compiled a list of 15 Chief Eccentric Officers—10 current and five Hall of Famers. These deviants from the stiff, stoic mold of corporate management have little in common except, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board, they do it their way.

Ben Levisohn is an intern for BusinessWeek.

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