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Whole Foods' fight with FTC reaches a standoff

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, speaks while surrounded by Whole Foods employees during a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C. He has sued to halt the FTC’s antitrust proceedings.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, speaks while surrounded by Whole Foods employees during a news conference Tuesday in Washington, D.C. He has sued to halt the FTC’s antitrust proceedings.

Whole Foods Market Inc. maverick CEO John Mackey last week upped the ante on his campaign to discredit the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, which seems compelled to undo the company's 2007 acquisition of Wild Oats Markets Inc. Mackey, flanked by two dozen store employees, held a press conference in Washington insisting the FTC mistreats Whole Foods as it contests the Wild Oats merger.

"The FTC from the very beginning has treated Whole Foods Markets disrespectfully and, I think, has almost a vendetta at this point," Mackey said.

Whole Foods operates 16 stores in Florida, including a Tampa store — a former Wild Oats store — at 1548 N Dale Mabry Blvd. Wild Oats had 109 stores at the time of the merger, and most have already been absorbed into Whole Foods.

Whole Foods filed a lawsuit against the FTC one week ago asking a federal court to stop the FTC from convening an administrative trial in February on the legality of the merger.

On antitrust grounds, the FTC argues the merger completed in August 2007 would lessen competition in the market for natural and organic foods. It's not clear if the FTC researchers concluded this before wandering the organic products sections of almost every major supermarket chain.

"There's only one place Whole Foods has a monopoly," Mackey argues, "and that's in the imagination of the lawyers at the Federal Trade Commission."

According to Mackey, Whole Foods' store prices have dropped since the merger and same-store sales (stores open at least one year) are down. "How," poses Mackey, "can a monopolist have negative same-store sales?"

Whole Foods' legal fight has already cost the organic-grocery chain $16.5-million. The company faces up to $20-million more in legal bills as the case proceeds through the FTC's judicial system.

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That Ohio bank with the memorable name of Fifth Third appointed longtime Tampa Bay banker Karen Lovaglio Dee as president and chief executive of its Central Florida affiliate in Orlando. She starts the first Monday of 2009. Dee is a former Wachovia Bank president for the Tampa Bay region (and for a while was the senior female banking executive in the metro area), and before that was a longtime First Union executive. She joined Fifth Third in October 2006.

Dee's Orlando roots already are growing. One of her daughters is a senior at the University of Central Florida and the other daughter will be an incoming freshman at UCF in 2009.

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When he died in 2007, Tampa area rancher and businessman Bob Thomas was among the region's biggest philanthropists, particularly when it came to the Catholic Church.

Last week, Ave Maria University in Naples named a building after Thomas, the 65,000-square-foot Bob Thomas Student Union. Thomas served as chairman of the university started by Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan. He and his family gave more than $5-million to the school. Thomas owned Two Rivers Ranch, 14,000 acres in Thonotosassa.

Whole Foods' fight with FTC reaches a standoff 12/14/08 [Last modified: Sunday, December 14, 2008 7:16pm]
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