Starbucks said Monday that Executive Chairman 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."
Schultz 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.
Schultz has instead 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 coproduced a documentary series at Starbucks about inspiring Americans who engage in acts of citizenship and civility, and opened a separate personal office to handle his own affairs.
At an Atlantic Council event last month in Washington, Schultz laid out a set or themes that would fit easily into a 2020 presidential campaign, including 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 stepped away from running the company on a day-to-day basis in April 2017, the second time he had 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 chain of Starbucks Reserve Roasteries, 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, Italy, 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 one of its Philadelphia stores, leading the company to institute racial-bias training across the country for 175,000 workers.
In the days after two black men were arrested in Philadelphia, Schultz, along with Johnson, flew to meet with the men and personally apologize. The coffee behemoth then announced it would close stores for the afternoon of May 29 for racial-bias training, marking the beginning of yearslong 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.
Schultz also made clear that Starbucks's racial-bias training wasn't just 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 … see that through the lens of humanity. And this exercise is the beginning of that for Starbucks."