Reporter's Notebook
Howard Schultz: A vocal presidential non-candidate

Howard Schultz: A vocal presidential non-candidate

Lisa JenningsThis post is part of the Reporter's Notebook blog.

Starbucks Corp. hosted its 24th annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, a two-hour gathering that once again seemed more campaign event than business update.

Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz has made it clear that he isn’t running for president. 

Still, he sure sounds like it.

The Seattle-based coffeehouse chain on Thursday posted full-page ads in The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal calling for unity and for Americans to choose optimism, opportunity and community over cynicism, limits and isolation.

Though vague in its target, the ad appears to attack what Schultz described during the shareholder meeting as a climate of “dysfunction and polarization” among political leaders in America. 

During the two-hour meeting — which began with a moment of silence for victims of the terrorist attacks in Belgium Tuesday and ended with an inspiring live performance by 15-time Grammy winner and political activist Alicia Keys — Schultz revisited an issue he brought up two years ago at the same meeting: that for-profit companies have a responsibility to be a force for good in society.

Over the past two years, he said, the challenges America faces have only gotten worse. 

Schultz said he has struggled to find words to “express the pain I feel about where America is headed and the cloud hanging over the American people.

“Broken promises, a void of truth in leadership have led to a fracturing of trust and confidence not only in our elected officials but in our institutions,” he said.

Now Schultz is calling on all citizens to take action, not just by voting every four years, but in the choices they make every day. Or, as the full-page ad suggests, to choose respect over vitriol; inclusion over exclusion; compassion over indifference, and the list goes on.

During the shareholder meeting, Starbucks officials touched on the many ways the company aims to be performance-driven, but still view that performance through the “lens of humanity.”

Howard Schultz
Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz at the company's annual shareholders meeting. Photo: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Over the past few years, the company has hosted open forums on social issues like race relations, made a commitment to hire veterans and at-risk youths, and offered tuition support to employees. 

This year, the chain is launching a new initiative to collect food that cannot be sold but is still viable for donation to food banks. Starbucks has committed to donate 20 million coffee-tree seedlings to coffee farmers by the end of the year to further sustainability. And the chain has partnered with Democracy Works to make it easier for employees to register to vote.

Schultz said he has been criticized for such efforts by shareholders, but he maintains these moves are accretive to shareholder value, not dilutive. 

Starbucks, with nearly 24,000 units in 70 countries, surpassed $19 billion in revenue in 2015, and has a market cap of about $88 billion, Schultz said, with plenty of runway for growth.

China, where Starbucks has 2,000 units in 100 cities, has the potential to become an even bigger business than in the U.S., where Starbucks operates about 7,600 company-owned locations, Schultz said.

Last year, Schultz, who has been a supporter of Democratic candidates in the past, was urged to join the presidential race as a political outsider.

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Schultz, a devotee of the servant leader philosophy, said he had no intention of entering the presidential fray. There is more he can do at Starbucks, he wrote, to demonstrate responsible leadership.

On Wednesday, he told CNNMoney that he has not endorsed any presidential candidate. Yet.

Meanwhile, a fellow billionaire businessman has apparently struck a chord as a political outsider, at least with certain voters on the other end of the political spectrum. 

According to Forbes, Schultz’s net worth is about $3 billion, while Donald Trump is worth about $4.5 billion.

The two couldn’t be more different, and Starbucks’ ads today appear designed to hone in on that contrast. 

Could Schultz be regretting a missed opportunity?

Contact Lisa Jennings at [email protected]
Follow her on Twitter: @livetodineout

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