- Skye Gould/Hollis Johnson/Business Insider
- Starbucks may be former CEO Howard Schultz’s Achilles’ heel as backlash to his presidential aspirations grows.
- Many baristas and other in-store workers are turning on Schultz, and progressive customers are threatening to boycott the coffee giant.
- Backlash from employees and trouble for Starbucks could persuade Schultz to end his presidential race before it even begins, according to people who have worked with him.
- “If it starts to impinge on Starbucks … that will start to have a big impact on his decision-making,” one former Starbucks executive who worked with Schultz said. “Because at the end of the day that’s still his first love. And, frankly, a giant amount of his wealth is tied up in the company.”
Now Starbucks itself might be the left’s best bet at persuading Schultz to drop out, according to those who know and have worked with the billionaire. Schultz has long maintained a cult of personality among both corporate and in-store workers at Starbucks.
Nancy Koehn, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied Starbucks for more than two decades and done extensive interviews with Schultz, recalls witnessing Schultz walking into a meeting of Starbucks employees and having the room “erupt like a rock concert.”
One barista, who’s worked at the chain for 20 years, told Business Insider that she cried when Schultz left Starbucks in 2018. Numerous workers affectionately referred to him as “Uncle Howard,” and Schultz wrote in his new book, “From the Ground Up,” that he loved Starbucks “almost as much as my family.”
Now, though, a number of Starbucks baristas and other in-store workers are pushing against Schultz’s political aspirations.
Of the nine Starbucks workers who spoke with Business Insider anonymously – so as to share their thoughts frankly without fear of professional repercussion – all but one said that they opposed the former CEO running for president.
One person, who works at a Starbucks in Santa Cruz, California, said he was considering organizing a walkout and quitting the company.
“Before he announced considering a run, I had as high an opinion of him as one could have of a billionaire,” the employee said.
“It felt as though he was running Starbucks in a somewhat unique way, what with all the benefits and programs the corporation offers its partners, and because of this I felt that he perhaps at least had a finger on the pulse of everyday Americans’ needs,” he continued. “However, my opinion has changed considerably.”
Dropping out, for love and for money
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Koehn said that if this barista backlash grows, Schultz would likely be paying attention.
“I would guess that he will listen very carefully to that kind of reaction as it comes to him, both through the media and through direct connection with his partners,” Koehn said.
She added, “This is a person who walks into a Starbucks store every day of his life.”
Two people who worked with Schultz at Starbucks, and who also asked to speak on condition of anonymity, said that Schultz was sensitive to criticism. Within Starbucks, they say, Schultz created an environment where his beliefs were rarely opposed or questioned directly.
“To get the initial run being a combination of pleas to stop and outright disdain for the choice … I would think that would have a lot of impact on him,” someone who worked closely with Schultz at Starbucks in the early 2000s said. “He’s so used to getting positive feedback.”
Another former Starbucks executive, who worked at the company under Schultz’s leadership for more than a decade, said the former CEO has personal and financial reasons to make sure his campaign doesn’t injure Starbucks’ reputation.
“If it starts to impinge on Starbucks, I think that despite what he says, that will start to have a big impact on his decision-making,” the ex-executive said. “Because, at the end of the day, that’s still his first love. And, frankly, a giant amount of his wealth is tied up in the company.”
While Schultz left Starbucks in 2018, he still owns more than 37.7 million shares – or about 3% – of the company’s stock. In 2018, Schultz’s salary at Starbucks was $1, but he received $30.1 million in total compensation from the company, including stock and options awarded.
“If Howard Schultz decides to run for president, he will take the steps necessary to create an appropriate level of separation from any financial interests,” Schultz spokesman Tucker Warren said in a statement to Business Insider.
Many on the left began threatening to boycott Starbucks soon after Schultz announced he was considering running for president. While there has not been any reported impact on sales, Democratic strategists are circling in on Starbucks as an Achilles’ heel for Schultz.
Schultz’s Achilles’ heel
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Already, Schultz’s critics are trying to use the company to take him down.
The liberal super PAC American Bridge 21st Century is weaponizing Starbucks’ settlements with workers as ammunition against Schultz, CNBC reports. According to the group, Starbucks has paid $46 million in settlements in response to wage and compensation complaints, many of which occurred under Schultz’s leadership.
The progressive public-affairs firm SKDKnickerbocker has been contacting Democratic operatives in an attempt to persuade them to leave Starbucks out of attacks on Schultz, The Daily Beast reports. The firm, which works with Starbucks, is reportedly trying to convince Democrats that it is not fair to take Starbucks down with Schultz, as the former CEO is no longer employed by the coffee giant.
Starbucks, for its part, has attempted to create distance between itself and Schultz. While the company offered employees discounts on Schultz’s book, “From the Ground Up,” and sent copies to stores, Starbucks is attempting to remain apolitical.
“Many of us will inevitably be asked if the company supports a possible presidential candidacy of Howard and what changes for Starbucks,” CEO Kevin Johnson said in a letter to employees on January 28. “As a company, we don’t get involved in national political campaigns. And nothing changes for Starbucks.”
Starbucks declined to comment on The Daily Beast report.
But according to the former Starbucks executive who spoke with Business Insider, targeting the chain might be the best way for Democrats to persuade Schultz to kill the campaign before it gets off the ground.
“If he feels like it’s going to damage the company – people will boycott it or it will leave a black mark – I think that will really impact his decision,” the executive said.
“He’s proved time after time, year after year that … he will put Starbucks above almost anything in his life,” he went on. “Even his family.”
If you have a Howard Schultz story or a perspective on his potential presidential campaign to share, email this reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.