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Howard Schultz steps down at Starbucks — giving rise to speculation of presidential ambitions

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz said he believes “the country needs to become more compassionate” in an interview on Sept. 20, 2017. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Starbucks said Monday that Howard Schultz, who transformed a small retail chain of coffee stores into a global juggernaut of cafes, restaurants and coffee beans with more than 28,000 stores in 77 countries, will be stepping down as executive chairman and as a member of the company’s board effective June 26.

One of America’s most widely recognized CEOs, Schultz long ago emerged as an outspoken leader on civic issues such as immigration, LGBTQ issues and gun control. This move has reignited speculation that a plan to run for political office could be in his future.

In an interview with the New York Times, Schultz reportedly acknowledged that he may consider public service. Asked specifically if he was planning to run for president, Schultz said: “I intend to think about a range of options, and that could include public service. But I’m a long way from making any decisions about the future.”

Howard Schultz wants you to try some civility with your coffee

Schultz, 64, has for years expressed an interest in becoming more involved in public life, even as he has equivocated on questions about whether he will mount a campaign for president. His friend David Geffen, the Hollywood mogul and a major Democratic donor, has said he encouraged Schultz to run as far back as the 2008 campaign cycle.

In 2015, Schultz addressed speculation directly in a New York Times op-ed, in which he wrote that “despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray. I’m not done serving at Starbucks.”

Instead, Schultz has used the intervening years to expand his philanthropic efforts, both through Starbucks and his family foundation, which focuses on helping veterans, employing young people and helping the homeless in Washington state. He has also co-produced a documentary series at Starbucks about inspiring Americans who engage in acts of citizenship and civility, and he opened a separate, personal office to handle his own affairs.

The culinary biography of Starbucks Executive Chairman Howard Schultz. (Video: The Washington Post)

At an Atlantic Council event last month in Washington, Schultz laid out themes that would fit easily into a 2020 presidential campaign, including a warning against isolationism and nationalism.

“This is not a time to build walls. This is a time to build bridges,” he said. “We have an awesome responsibility not to be desensitized by the time we are living in, not to accept the status quo of a lack of dignity and a lack of respect, but to rise above it and to do all we can.”

Schultz had transitioned from running the company on a day-to-day basis in April 2017, the second time he’d given up the chief executive’s title, most recently to current CEO Kevin Johnson. After becoming executive chairman, he focused on the company’s premium brands — its Starbucks Reserve Roastery chain, Reserve stores and its partnership with an Italian bakery, Princi. The company’s announcement said that after Schultz leaves the board, he will oversee the opening of two Roastery stores — one in Milan in September and another in New York in October. He will receive the title of chairman emeritus.

The company said that former J.C. Penney chairman and CEO Myron “Mike” Ullman would be appointed its new board chair and Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson would serve as vice chair. Both are current members of the Starbucks board.

Schultz returned to the company’s forefront recently as Starbucks became embroiled in controversy over the arrest of two customers at a Philadelphia store, leading the company to institute racial bias training across the country for 175,000 workers.

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In the days after two black men were arrested at the Philadelphia store, Schultz, along with Johnson, flew to meet with the men and personally apologize. The coffee behemoth then announced that it would close stores for the afternoon of May 29 for racial bias training, marking the beginning of years-long initiatives to steer workers toward inclusivity and sensitivity.

In the weeks leading to the training, Schultz repeatedly cast the arrests as a companywide failure that reflected on the company’s top leadership — rather than placing blame on the manager who called 911. He described going through the training himself and being gripped by the experiences of a colleague who grew up in South Africa during apartheid. And he appeared throughout the racial bias curriculum, calling on employees to do their part to uphold a welcoming community for all in their stores and communities.

Anatomy of a PR response: How Starbucks is handling its Philadelphia crisis

“That’s my hope for the company, and that’s literally my hope for the country,” he said in the training.

Schultz has not shied away from taking political positions at Starbucks. After President Trump issued an executive order banning visitors from seven predominantly Muslim countries, he announced that Starbucks would develop plans to hire 10,000 refugees in the 75 countries where the company does business. “We will neither stand by, nor stand silent,” he said at the time.

In 2013, he ran ads in several national newspapers with a petition demanding that lawmakers end the government shutdown and pass a long-term budget deal. He encouraged Americans to tear out, sign and deliver the ads to Starbucks locations in the U.S., where he promised they would be collected and forwarded on to Washington.

Schultz made clear that Starbucks’s racial bias training wasn’t about his company alone.

“It’s not about Starbucks, it’s about the country,” Schultz said. “What kind of country do we want to live in? For me the answer is very simple. The promise of America will not be achieved if it is only available to those that have the right color of skin or have the right Zip code. We must provide opportunity and aspiration to every single person who is American, and we must see that through the lens of humanity. And this exercise is the beginning of that for Starbucks.”

Now that he is stepping away from Starbucks, Schultz will join a group of wealthy entrepreneurs who have been discussed as 2020 candidates, following the outsider path blazed by Donald Trump in 2016. They include media mogul Oprah Winfrey, technology investor Mark Cuban and progressive financier Tom Steyer, who is traveling the country to hold town halls as part of a grass-roots mobilization effort focused on the midterms. Disney CEO Bob Iger has said he previously explored a campaign for president before deciding to sign a new contract with his company that would prevent a 2020 run.

Schultz — in letters to employees and remarks at annual shareholder meetings — has for years been honing his own brand of lofty rhetoric that has often sounded hints of a campaign-style stump speech. Speaking before the election in 2016 that would vault Trump into the presidency, Schultz said “I’ve struggled for weeks to find the right words to express the pain I feel about where America is headed and the cloud hanging over the American people. There are moments when I’ve had a hard time recognizing who we are and who we are becoming. We are facing a test not only of our character but of our morality as a people.”

Read more:

Starbucks arrests: Who gets to decide whether you’re a patron or a trespasser?

Starbucks chairman opens up about company’s race failures — and says its bathrooms are now open to all

How Corporate America is trying to foster more real talk about race