When Walter Robb invests in a brand, he looks for some key qualities. The former co-CEO of Whole Foods Market and principal at Stonewall Robb Advisors, wants to see exciting and innovative brands with the ability to scale. He looks for founders with the “it” factor – that intangible characteristic that makes them stand out. And one of the most important attributes of all is a founder’s authentic desire to do good as they’re doing well.
“I’m looking for (a founder) with a deeper reason for why they’re doing it,” Robb told the founders of SKU’s 2022 Austin Track during the cohort’s kickoff class on Brand Fundamentals. “There are those in it for the money and those looking to make an impact, whatever that is. When you feel that passion and determination, people respond to that.”
Robb is an advocate of Conscious Capitalism, a belief that companies can and should have a positive impact on the world. The younger generation increasingly is looking for brands that reflect their values.
“The point is for you to bake doing good into the core of your company in a way that’s authentic to you,” says Robb. “We all know that the world has things that need to be tending to. From the get go, design your company with a giveback is essential today.”
That doesn’t mean a brand must lose site of profitability, he stressed. A company needs to be a sustainable business model.
“You need to do both,” he says. “It’s what allows you to give back to the world.”
Robb is an expert when it comes to building a business that is financially successful while benefiting all of its stakeholders – from employees to the communities in which they do business. The natural foods pioneer started the Mountain Marketplace food store in California in 1976. He joined forces with Whole Foods founder John Mackey in 1991, working alongside him to build the small regional chain into the world’s leading natural foods retailer, with hundreds of stores from Iowa to the UK.
Robb has seen thousands – possibly millions – of products during his long and successful career in the industry. He has attended every single Expo West since it started 32 every ago. And he has has watched how natural, better-for-you brands – once sold mainly in stores like Whole Foods – now are a staple at conventional retailers as well.
While Whole Foods helped to transform the way consumers shopped and lived, emerging brands have played a huge role in this evolution.
“We provided the canvas, you provided the paint and together we created a beautiful painting,” says Robb.
As the founder of Stonewall Robb, he now focuses on investing in and mentoring founders in a wide range of industries. Stonewall enables him to stay connected with the next generation of companies, he says.
The natural foods industry remains his passion. That was evident as he talked to the SKU founders about their products, feeding off their energy and passion. As they encounter challenges as they build their businesses, he told them one of the most important things is to believe that they can and will succeed.
“Hold on to your dreams,” he says. “Your dreams are everything.”