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Whole Foods CEO Says He Expects Settlement With FTC In Merger Deal

NEW HAVEN - - Eighteen months after buying former rival Wild Oats Markets, the founder and chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc. is still fighting federal regulators to make the merger stick. But in a visit to Yale University on Tuesday, he said he anticipates a settlement soon.

"Hopefully, there'll be an announcement in the next couple of weeks," said John Mackey, the Whole Foods CEO.

The Federal Trade Commission tried, but failed, to prevent the merger, saying it would create a monopoly that would squelch competition and hurt consumers. The agency has been trying to undo the deal ever since and has said it might try to force Whole Foods to divest some former Wild Oats properties, restore the Wild Oats brand name or install independent managers.

This month, the agency agreed to a March 6 settlement deadline. Absent a deal, a trial before an administrative law judge is scheduled for April 6.

It's an unusual case, in part because Austin-based Whole Foods, which bought Wild Oats for $565 million plus debt, has all but totally integrated the operations of the two businesses, including former Wild Oats stores in West Hartford and Westport.

With those two stores, Whole Foods operates five Connecticut locations - two in West Hartford, one in Glastonbury, one in Westport and one in Greenwich.

The company plans to open four more, in Milford, Fairfield, Darien and Stamford, company spokesman Fred Shank said.

Mackey came to Yale to deliver two separate lectures, one called "Conscious Capitalism," in which he described the principles of Whole Foods' business philosophy, and another called "A Vision of Sustainable Agriculture and Healthy Eating in the 21st Century."

He portrayed Whole Foods as an organization that seeks profits as a byproduct of pursuing other ideals, including service to others, devotion to discovery, the pursuit of excellence and improvement of the world at large. He advocated this philosophy for other companies, saying capitalism and corporations are "not trusted."

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