Standing at the legal helm of Whole Foods Market would present challenges to the most seasoned in-house lawyer. The all-natural food giant employs more than 40,000 people throughout its Austin, Texas, headquarters and nearly 280 locations, which presents legal issues in itself. And the company continues to grow exponentially. In 2002 it went international, opening a store in Toronto.
Then in 2004 it acquired seven Fresh & Wild stores throughout the UK. Most recently, in August 2007, it completed its buyout of competitor Wild Oats Markets--a transaction that garnered attention in the media when Whole Foods' CEO and founder John Mackey admitted to posting comments on the value of Wild Oats under a code name on an online financial forum. The event sparked an SEC investigation, and in late April, the Commission decided not to take action against Mackey. The FTC, however, continues to fight the buyout, citing antitrust concerns.
But Roberta Lang, Whole Foods' vice president and general counsel, keeps a level head through it all. Granted, Lang couldn't have landed a position more suited to her lifestyle. A practitioner of yoga and organic living and a self-described entrepreneur-at-heart, Lang has spent 10 years in-house at Whole Foods applying her life's passion to her work.
Lang worked hard to realize her dream. At age 18, she got her first taste of the food industry when she and a business partner started their own all-natural health food store in South Bend, Ind. With a few entrepreneurial years under her belt, Lang headed to Indiana University, where she studied political science. Although she flirted with the idea of getting an MBA upon graduation, Lang decided law school offered her more career flexibility and immediately enrolled in Valparaiso University School of Law.
Three years later, the new law school grad jumped at the chance to join a Chicago law firm. As an associate at Momkus Ozog & McCluskey, Lang got varied experience in litigation, transactional real estate, and labor and employment law, and she credits that early experience with laying the foundation for her success with Whole Foods today. Well, that, her yoga mat and a nice glass of private label Whole Foods Chardonnay.
Q:With such an entrepreneurial background, how did you end up as GC of Whole Foods?
A:I was on the other side of a transaction with Whole Foods Market when I worked at the Chicago law firm and had become a core customer ever since then. When I learned more about the company and its values, I knew they mirrored mine. So when an in-house opportunity at Whole Foods arose in the Midwest region in 1998, I took it. Then in 2000 they asked me to become general counsel, so I moved to Austin.
Q:How has the legal department changed over the years?
A:I was the only lawyer for many years. Then, slowly, as the company grew, so did the legal team. Now we're up to seven lawyers and seven nonlawyers. We have a fantastic core outside counsel team that works with us regularly as well.
Q:How has Whole Foods' expansion affected the legal department?
A:We've seen the value of bringing more of the work in-house and having attorneys who are focused on their specific area of practice. It's easier to help business clients when you're immersed in the culture, in the mission of the company. It allows everyone to do their absolute best work.
Q:What's a day in Whole Foods' legal department like?
A:We work on just about every type of issue: securities, litigation, employment, mergers and acquisitions, regulatory compliance, intellectual property. We work with the foundation and the day-to-day issues that come up in a company.
Q:Why is Whole Foods' legal department unique?
A:I can truly say we're all cheerleaders for the company. Everybody who works on the legal team at Whole Foods Market loves the company and appreciates the great opportunity they have to work with such fantastic business people. The team is appreciated by their fellow team members and our business partners seek us out regularly to find solutions to their issues or just to brainstorm about the best way to proceed in a project. This is a lot more dynamic and positive than many
Q:It was big in the news when John Mackey posted comments about Wild Oats on a financial forum. How was the legal department involved in the aftermath?
A:We partner with our PR team to try to ensure that the truth is told. We do that all the time. However, it doesn't happen all the time because no one can control the media and what they perceive to be newsworthy.
Q: Whole Foods has a reputation as a good corporate citizen. How has the legal department been involved in creating corporate responsibility policies?
A:Every recommendation the legal team makes is made with the corporate philosophy in mind. We give our recommendations based on law, and we also make sure those recommendations are in line with our core values.
Q:What about some of the more challenging parts of your job?
A:Probably one of the most challenging aspects for any global team at Whole Foods is the decentralized nature of our company. There are 11 regions, and they're very autonomous. We empower the regions to run their businesses to be successful. But that means at times we may have 11 different opportunities to solve the same problem in 11 different ways. It's always exciting, and it really does inspire creativity.
Q:Why do you fit into that culture
A:I have a long history in the natural and organic food industry. I wanted to work for a company that's mission-driven. Whole Foods' mission is to help people make better choices, and we deliver on it with the good work we do every day, bringing the freshest food to more people. Everyone I work with is passionate about what they do and about working for Whole Foods. It's great to come to work every day in this environment.
Q:Tell me about your Whole Foods Market All Star Award.
A:The Global All Star Award is the highest award possible in our company and recognizes teamwork, dedication and outstanding performance. These awards are given both at the regional level and at the global level, and I've been honored three times globally for a variety of reasons, but I think all the accomplishments are really the result of team effort. We're a very team-oriented company.
Q:What's the best part of your job?
A:It's the people I work with every day and the fact that I work for a company that's making a difference in the world.
Q:What is your favorite Whole Foods product?
A:Our private label wine. We take such care in sourcing and bringing these products to market that I know they're always going to be great. There are more of these every week, and it's just an adventure to try them all.