Case Detail

Case Summary

Wild Oats: Sowing vs. Reaping

Case Number: 5-110-007, Year Published: 2010

HBS Number: KEL466

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Authors: Scott Whitaker; Bob Barnett

Key Concepts

Organic Foods, Natural Foods Stores, Grocery Stores, Whole Foods, John Mackey, Entrepreneurship, Expansion, Acquisitions, Rapid Growth, Company Culture, Friendly Competition, Henry’s Farmers Market


The case highlights Mike Gilliland, who built a single organic foods store in 1987 in Boulder, Colorado, into Wild Oats Markets, a chain of natural foods stores that by 2001 had annual sales of $1 billion and stores in 38 states.

The case includes a history of the natural foods business and explores why Gilliland’s timing was so favorable. By the 1980s, when Gilliland got started, the natural foods business had grown and matured, consisting mostly of small specialty stores selling locally grown natural foods. Although the industry was created by the California counter-culturists, it was built into a national phenomenon by the second generation of leaders, including Gilliland and Whole Foods founder John Mackey. The natural foods industry was clubby and congenial until Gilliland sought to grow his business beyond Boulder, Colorado, expanding into four states, including California. Mackey responded by moving into Boulder. Whole Foods became the nation’s number one natural foods seller by the early 1990s. Whole Foods went public in 1992, and Wild Oats, in 1996.

Whole Foods’s success had begun to erode Wild Oats’s market share, hurt sales growth, and depress the stock price. Gilliland favored taking Wild Oats in a new direction, modeled after Henry’s Marketplace, a San Diego chain that Wild Oats had purchased in 2000. Henry’s approach was to offer a product mix that appealed to a broader range of people than did the natural foods stores. Henry’s competed effectively with Whole Foods because it had a different customer base; the stores were cheap to build if the company wanted to expand; and the company had showed sustained growth since its founding in 1943. But the Wild Oats board of directors disagreed, opting instead for continuing on the same path. The board also expressed an interest in replacing Gilliland. He now had to weigh his options and contemplate leaving the company he had nurtured for the past twenty years.

Learning Objectives

This case can be used to examine the importance of long-range planning. Entrepreneurs tend to be reactive; they often succeed because they seize opportunities when they become available. The ability to recognize an opportunity and to seize it is an important entrepreneurial strength, but it can prove fatal if not balanced with proactive strategic planning.

Number of Pages: 7

Extended Case Information

Teaching Areas: Entrepreneurship, Management, Marketing, Strategy

Teaching Note Available: Yes

Geographic: Boulder, Colorado, United States

Industry: Grocery and Organic Foods Stores

Organization Name: Wild Oats Markets

Organization Department: Executive Office

Organization Size: Medium

Decision Maker Position: CEO

Decision Maker Gender: Male

Year of Case: 2007