Schultz Leaves Starbucks in Good Hands

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It's the end of an era at Starbucks Corp.

The coffee giant announced Monday that its longtime leader Howard Schultz is resigning as executive chairman, a coda to his decision last year to step down as CEO and turn that job over to Kevin Johnson.

It's hard to overstate the role Schultz played in this chain's extraordinary ride from tiny, boutique coffeehouse to global dining juggernaut.

Schultz,  64, was a key architect of the Starbucks brand identity and, more broadly, basically created the market in the U.S. for lattes and other once-exotic coffee drinks. He also steered the company through some dark times, such as when he re-assumed the CEO role in 2008 after having vacated it several years earlier. Starbucks was in a rut fueled by overexpansion and exacerbated by the recession, and he managed to get it on steadier footing. All the while, Schultz has been an innovator when it came to how a public corporation should try to affect social change.

But Starbucks investors shouldn’t be too troubled by his departure from the board. After all, the more decisive moment for the future of Starbucks was when Schultz handed over the CEO reins to Kevin Johnson. And as I noted earlier this year, Johnson is proving himself to be a capable steward of the company. He displayed that clearly in his proactive response to the controversy that sprang up earlier this year after two black men were arrested in one of its Philadelphia restaurants, including closing more than 8,000 of its stores for part of a day last month so employees could attend racial-bias training.

Johnson also seems clear-eyed about the challenges Starbucks faces in its home market and is moving quickly, but also prudently, to expand in China to help offset some of that weakness. He has extensive experience in the tech world, essential for a company that’s been blazing the trail on mobile ordering and payments. 

And besides, we probably should've seen this coming. When Schultz relinquished the CEO job, the company had announced his focus as executive chairman would be on new innovations such as its upscale roasteries and Reserve stores and on its social agenda. It's not terribly surprising someone as ambitious as Schultz wouldn't be content to simply tinker on a small portion of the Starbucks empire.

Schultz said in a Monday interview with the New York Times that he is exploring a number of options for his next act, including public service, so cue up the feverish speculation that he'll challenge President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

But whatever Schultz does next, he can feel content that he left Starbucks in good hands. Johnson no longer needs a co-pilot.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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