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Return of the barista-in-chief

Posted by Junichi Kawagoe on 26.2010 News Out of English Newspaper   0 comments   0 trackback
Sitting in his spacious but modestly furnished office at Starbucks’ headquarters on an industrial lot south of Seattle, Howard Schultz claims he is nothing more than a purveyor of high-quality coffee beans. “What I really am is a merchant,” he says, flashing a smile. “I have a sense of what people want.”

“Merchant” is rather a modest job description for the 56-year-old New York native, who returned to a day-to-day role as chief executive two years ago to revive the fortunes of the company he nurtured from infancy into a global brand. Some see Mr Schultz as a visionary leader, rallying a despondent workforce against the mediocrity that had gained a foothold in the company.

One thing it is impossible to deny is his passion for the company. Asked why he came back as chief executive, he replies: “The reason is love ... I love this company. I love its 180,000 people. I feel a responsibility to them and to the shareholder base.”
When Mr Schultz replaced Jim Donald in January 2008, the company was in disarray, a victim of overexpansion. From 2000 to 2007, it swelled from 9,000 stores to 15,000, with a presence in 43 countries, but it was stumbling badly in the US, posting like-for-like declines across many stores.

Worse, Starbucks’ competitive advantage throughout the 1990s – its position as the “first mover” in the coffee shop category – had evaporated. At the high end, US chains such as Peet’s and other speciality shops pecked away at Starbucks’ premium position, while in the mass market, rivals such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’ Donuts improved the quality of their offerings and undercut Starbucks on price. McDonald’s even purchased advertising space on billboards, skewering Starbucks’ high prices with lines such as “four bucks is dumb” and “large is the new grande”, lampooning Starbucks’ Italian-language sizes.

In 2007, as the recession took hold, Starbucks’ sales eased. Soon the company came to be seen as a poster child for the frothy excess of a bygone era.

Mr Schultz took the criticism personally. “When you love something and someone tries to take it away from you, you fight,” he says. Over freshly brewed coffee, he recalls the slights from the analysts and pundits that Starbucks’ “best days were over”.

Mr Schultz’s history with Starbucks – which holds its annual meeting this week – goes back to 1982, when he left his comfortable position as a sales executive with a home-supply company to become marketing director at Starbucks, at that time a chain of four coffee bean stores in Seattle. The following year, in Milan, he had an epiphany when he witnessed the showmanship of Italian baristas and the sense of community those baristas engendered at Italian coffee bars.

His pleas that Starbucks should serve fresh-brewed coffee fell on deaf ears, so he left to start Il Giornale, his own coffee bar. But in 1987, he raised $4m from investors that backed Il Giornale to buy Starbucks and refashion it as a chain of high-quality coffee stores. Five years later, he took it public and launched it on its meteoric rise. He vacated the chief executive position to become chairman in 2000.

Mr Schultz went on to buy the Seattle Supersonics, a professional basketball team, promising to bring a championship to the second-tier team by running it like a business. He quickly realised he had made a mistake. “I knew early on that I had jumped into the deep end of the pool and I didn’t like the temperature,” he says.

After several disappointing seasons, Mr Schultz sold the team to out-of-town investors who moved the squad to Oklahoma, transforming him into a pariah in his adopted city.

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