Howard Schultz: the coffee king running for US president

Howard Schultz

Howard Schultz, the man who took the Starbucks coffee chain global, has his eyes on America’s top job. But will he bottle it before the contest even begins? Jane Lewis reports

Barely a fortnight after throwing his hat into the ring as an independent candidate for 2020, Howard Schultz “is already reconsidering this whole president thing”, says Vanity Fair. The billionaire coffee magnate was reportedly so “shocked” by the fierce backlash against his potential bid – “You’ll help elect Trump, you billionaire, egotistical assh*le”, shouted one heckler at a New York book event – that, according to Fox Business News, he is now “looking more closely at whether he wants to go through with the effort”. Schultz, 65, probably won’t make a final call until the summer – he wants to see how Americans living outside the metropolis react to his ideas and his belief that political extremism is dividing the country.

His eureka moment

Schultz grew up in subsidised housing in Brooklyn in constant loathing of his sometimes violent father, Fred – “a dead-ender” truck driver who spent so much time on the couch that Schultz’s mother nicknamed him “Mr Horizontal”, says Rolling Stone. Young Howard would retreat “to the top of the building stairwell and imagine a less loser-y future”. After winning an athletic scholarship to Northern Michigan University, Schultz became a Xerox salesman before marrying a woman he met in the Hamptons, and moving to Seattle to work for a small coffee roaster called Starbucks. It was a trip to Milan in the mid-1980s that inspired Schultz’s “eureka moment”. In 1986, he quit the company and set up his first espresso bar, calling it Il Giornale – The Journal. Later, “with the aid of some felicitous connections such as Bill Gates Sr”, Schultz succeeded in buying out his old employer, Starbucks, and using its brand name to launch his vision of “ubiquitous” coffee shops. “Coffee from there took on a mystical importance” for him. Starbucks, writes Schultz, was a “mindset”. It was “not home, not work”, but a “third place” – “a way to exist in the world”.

The process of expanding the chain, which floated in 1992, from an initial 11 US stores to more than 28,000 worldwide, wasn’t without hazard. Starbucks lost its way financially in the early 2000s after Schultz stepped down as CEO to focus on its global expansion, notes The Seattle Times. After an eight-year hiatus, he returned to the helm, marking his return with an emotive “Valentine’s Day memo to executives”. Schultz’s inspiration, as documented in his 2011 memoir Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, was that other corporate comeback kid, Michael Dell. These days, Forbes puts his personal wealth at $2.9bn.

Beware bored billionaires

“A showman at heart,” one of Schultz’s “most appealing traits is his ability to be human, to frankly own both successes and mistakes with a gee-whiz candour”, says The Seattle Times. He once confided he was “nearly floored by the long ovation” that greeted his arrival on stage as the returning hero of Starbucks’ 2008 AGM. A taste for that kind of adulation won’t make it easy for Schultz to fend off the kind of brickbats he’s already experiencing on the stump, says CNBC. There are clear dangers for his business baby too. “Howard Schultz is destroying his personal brand and taking Starbucks down with him,” wrote one critic on Twitter this week. That could be just the start of his torment, says Rolling Stone. “If Schultz runs and Trump wins, people around the globe will pelt him with batteries and cat turds for all eternity… Is anything in the world more dangerous than a bored billionaire?”

 

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