Heather Stern of Whole Foods Market Runs Toward the Chaos

How Whole Foods Market’s Heather Stern is embracing the legal challenge of a major merger and the importance of a warm, collaborative culture

Heather Stern, General Counsel and Global VP of Legal Affairs, Whole Foods Market Courtesy of Kerdkanno/Shutterstock.com

Heather Stern signed on as Whole Foods Market’s general counsel just months before the grocery chain was acquired by Amazon in 2017. It seemed fortuitous. Years ago, Stern and her brother were eating at the multinational supermarket chain when she mentioned she would love to work for the multibillion-dollar organic product company. He responded that it would never happen. Why? “Because no one ever leaves,” she recalls. When Stern defied the odds and scored the role of general counsel and global vice president of legal affairs, in 2017, she saw that he was right: she never wants to leave.

“This is a comfortable, special place to work,” Stern says. “People can be themselves, work hard, and have their own personality. When someone starts a new job, they often say it takes a long time before they feel like they’re not new anymore. I stopped feeling new very quickly.”

That mind-set prepared her to dive in headfirst when she arrived in April 2017. On her first day, an activist investor took a large share of the Whole Foods Market stock. Not long after, the company welcomed five new board members. And, that August, Amazon acquired Whole Foods Market for $13.7 billion. For the first-time general counsel, it was an incredible opportunity for her company’s growth and her own professional development.

“It was very challenging,” Stern says. “It was a lot of very high-profile, complex work for any general counsel. Being someone who was new to the role and new to the company, it was a lot all at once to take in.” The legal leader values the ability to adapt and adjust with her personal mantra, “Run toward the chaos,” which she cites when navigating a fast-paced environment.

Prior to her arrival at Whole Foods Market, Stern had served in the legal department at Office Depot since 2005. There, she led the commercial litigation team and helped close a merger with OfficeMax in 2013, which transformed the company into a multibillion-dollar office supply retailer. Before going in-house, she worked as a labor and employment lawyer at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP and clerked for the 11th Circuit of the US Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Since Stern first earned her JD from the University of Georgia School of Law, she has cultivated a legal career built for change.

“When things get difficult or scary, run toward it,” Stern says. “That’s how you’ll grow as a lawyer, team member, and person—and it’s how you’ll advance in your career. Raise your hand when someone asks, ‘Who’s willing to do it?'”

Today at Whole Foods Market, Stern oversees transactions, intellectual property, employment law, litigation, governance, and compliance, as well as risk management and claims. She’s also working closely with members of Amazon’s legal team to help facilitate the integration process between the companies. “It’s an added benefit to have additional people to work with,” she says. “They’ve been very supportive of us. We’ve been learning from them and we think they’ve also been learning from us.”

The merger has also had an impact on Stern’s continued efforts to roll out updated compliance training, policies, and procedures. While several of Amazon’s compliance initiatives are being integrated, so too are efforts that Stern was spearheading even before the merger. The goal is to build a cohesive compliance training program, including illuminating the Whole Foods Market’s code of business conduct, which is the subject of a recently launched online training program. Stern and her team have also taken over the company’s compliance hotline.

“When things get difficult or scary, run toward it. That’s how you’ll grow as a lawyer, team member, and person.”

As more initiatives become necessary due to Europe’s GDPR data protection regulations, Stern is working to ensure the Whole Foods Market team stays informed without becoming overwhelmed. “I think the job of any legal team is to continuously monitor how the company is doing with its compliance efforts and that our team members are given the right level of compliance training,” she says. “In other words, we don’t want to overburden anyone, but we also need to make sure the right amount of training is in place.”

Stern is also implementing a number of efficiencies to help ease the company into the future, namely, by bringing a few different functions under the legal department’s umbrella. That includes Whole Foods Market’s employment work, which was previously handled in the company’s regions throughout the United States. Similarly, Stern’s team is also taking on loss prevention and safety—functions that previously lived in retail operations and in the regions. Not only do these efforts create economies of scale, but they also help ensure consistency and open up opportunities for standardization.

“There’s not a dull day,” says Stern, noting that she retains a hands-on approach when it comes to working with her team. “At some companies, the general counsel sits away from her team. Here, I’m with my team and have lots of interaction with them.”

The result is exposure to all the different successes, challenges, and peculiarities to pass through the team, according to Stern. “I’m glad I have interesting, varied work, because, for a lot of lawyers, their work can end up becoming a routine,” she says.

Stern also describes her role as a “thought partner” with the business itself. It coincides with her vision of developing legal as a tool to look at the bigger picture of the company. “Here, working in-house is selling groceries,” she says. “If you’re a litigator, your job isn’t to try cases, it’s to sell groceries. Every decision that we make has to be an evaluation of risk or an effort to move the ball forward for the business. Otherwise, we’re just a hindrance.”

Ultimately, she explains, her team’s mission is to help the business do what it needs to do, so as lawyers, her team must do everything it can to support that goal, regardless of each individual role on the team. “Be partners; be business friendly,” she says. “And help them move forward with their goals.”

Greenberg Traurig, LLP:
“Congratulations to our colleague, Heather Stern, on this recognition. She leads with energy, dedication, and vision each day. We are proud to work with her and her team and look forward to our continued partnership.”
-Gregory J. Casas, Administrative Shareholder of the Austin office