Schultz’s 2020 ambitions give Starbucks the jitters

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Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s presidential hopes are already running into resistance from his old coffee cohort.

Wall Street analysts are wary, and company leadership is nervous, about the effect a Democratic bid by its chairman emeritus could have on Starbucks’ business, given its bipartisan customer base. If that weren’t discouraging enough, Schultz’s retirement last month set off a boomlet of pundits urging him not to run. And his recent appearance at a private gathering of political donors convened by Mitt Romney inspired indifference.

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As Schultz takes the summer to contemplate a presidential campaign, the world is giving him a lot of downside to ponder, according to conversations with a dozen former Starbucks executives, equities analysts and others with insight into the coffee mogul, his former business and his recent moves.

“You’re putting a lot at risk. You’re putting your peace of mind at risk. You better really understand what you’re getting into. I’ve said that to him,” said former Starbucks President Howard Behar, a longtime Schultz confidant.

Behar compared his counsel to the advice he offered Schultz before another audacious undertaking.

“When he bought the Sonics, I said, ‘Man, are you sure you know what you’re doing here?’ And that didn’t turn out great,” Behar said, referring to Schultz’s 2001 purchase of the Seattle SuperSonics NBA franchise. His ownership ended in the team’s relocation to Oklahoma City in 2008, a sore point for Seattleites.

Chief among the risks of a Schultz run is that it could harm the business he spent decades building into a global powerhouse.

While Schultz has relinquished his executive role at Starbucks, a presidential campaign would nonetheless tie Starbucks to electoral politics in the public eye at a time when consumers increasingly view the world through partisan prisms. That would pose a risk for any mass consumer brand, according to financial analysts who track the company.

After all, to paraphrase Michael Jordan, Republicans drink coffee, too.

“Will there be some segment of the customer base that decides, ‘I’m not going to go to Starbucks anymore’ should he become a candidate?” asked Mark Kalinowski, president of Kalinowski Equity Research. “You have to think about the employees. You have to think about the shareholders, everybody who might be affected by the decision to run.”

“There’s a lot of pitfalls,” said R.J. Hottovy, global director of consumer equity research at the investment firm Morningstar. “This is already a company that has gone through a lot of issues as of late.”

In late June, John Zolidis, president of Quo Vadis Capital, delivered a presentation on Starbucks to investors at the VALUEx Vail conference in Colorado. A slide listing factors contributing to the stock’s underperformance cited a recent incident in which two black men were arrested at Starbucks while waiting to meet a friend, prompting nationwide outrage. The slide warned, “Too much politics.”

One analyst suggested that a Schultz presidential run could even prompt a conservative activist investor to go after Starbucks. Activist investors regularly issue blistering critiques of a firm’s existing business practices to persuade shareholders to install new management. But a Schultz run could motivate an activist investor to savage Starbucks’ practices to undermine Schultz’s public image — with turmoil for the business as a side effect, the analyst suggested.

Further complicating a presidential run, Schultz, whose net worth Forbes estimates to be $2.6 billion, holds 3 percent of Starbucks shares, posing potential conflict that in some ways dwarfs the conflict posed by the Trump Organization. For one, Starbucks has staked much of its future on expected growth in China, where it enjoys an unusual level of access to local markets, operating its stores without an in-country partner.

A spokeswoman for Schultz, Wanda Herndon, did not address a question about whether Schultz would divest his holdings in the cafe chain should he run for office.

“Howard is spending time with his family, evaluating his many options post-Starbucks, and figuring out what he will do next. It’s too early to know the direction he will follow,” she said in a statement. “He’s a very thoughtful individual who wants to make sure that he considers the next phase of his life in the same manner he considered and made decisions relative to his successful business career.” Starbucks did not respond to requests for comment.

Just weeks into his retirement, the blurred lines between citizen Schultz and coffee tycoon Schultz already are causing confusion in the financial media. Last week, Reuters reported that Schultz had hinted at a possible partnership between Starbucks and Chinese billionaire Jack Ma. The report prompted CNBC’s David Faber to remark, “Howard Schultz is just an owner of 3 percent of this company. He’s the founder. He’s not the executive chairman any longer. He’s not the CEO. Why is he still talking?”

The company’s current leaders are aware of the risks, according to one person familiar with leadership’s thinking who declined to be identified speaking on such a sensitive matter. “They don’t want him, as a retired founder, running for office,” said the person. “It’s a huge headache.”

Despite apprehensions, it’s far from certain that a run would hurt Starbucks’ business.

While a political campaign could make the chain’s brand more polarizing for consumers, the company has long projected a progressive image under Schultz. After all, American politics would not have “latte liberals” if Starbucks had not popularized that Italian style of coffee among this country’s affluent urbanites. And part of the appeal of a Schultz bid for the Democratic nomination would be his pioneering contributions to corporate social responsibility.

Kalinowski suggested a run could even be a net positive for the business if it inspires greater brand loyalty among left-leaning coffee drinkers. And a politically motivated activist investor, while possibly a thorn in management’s side, could also help the company’s bottom line.

Either way, a Schultz run would create uncertainty for one of the country’s largest companies. “I don’t believe the market has yet to fully appreciate or consider what a public political campaign at the national level could mean for Starbucks’ business,” Zolidis said.

If he ultimately runs, Schultz would be fulfilling an ambition he has nursed for years. “I always say, jokingly, that Howard is running for president or something, because the things that concern him you also hear from people who are running for office,” billionaire entertainment mogul David Geffen, a confidant, told Portfolio magazine for a 2008 profile of Schultz.

But a 2016 Forbes profile reported that his desire to run for public office had waned. “Howard knows himself well enough to realize that a role in national politics isn’t right for him,” Starbucks board member Mellody Hobson told the magazine.

Last year, when Schultz stepped down as CEO to assume the role of executive chairman, it reignited speculation that he was winding down his role with the company in preparation for political endeavors. His full retirement, effective late last month, has only intensified the chatter about a 2020 run.

Schultz has said his goal is to be a “great American citizen” and that he has not yet decided how he will fulfill it.

It’s not clear who Schultz is seeking out for political expertise as he considers a run, but he maintains relationships with a number of high-profile political figures. He supported former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley’s failed 2000 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Bradley went on to serve on Starbucks’ board. In response to a request for comment, Bradley wrote, “Not interested. Say I’m away,” in an email apparently intended for his secretary.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates also served on the company’s board until recently.

Last month, Schultz gave a half-hour sit-down interview on CNBC tied to the announcement of his retirement in which he openly mulled a presidential run and spoke mostly on issues of public policy.

The announcement of his departure had been delayed by the April incident in which a Starbucks employee called the police on black customers waiting to meet a friend inside a store. In response to public outcry, Schultz closed Starbucks nationwide for four hours of bias training for employees. It was an extraordinary response that was also criticized in many corners as insufficient, providing a preview of sorts of the difficulties Schultz would face running as a progressive business executive in a 2020 Democratic primary.

In June, Schultz appeared onstage for a Q&A session moderated by former Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman at Romney’s annual E2 Summit of Republican leaders, business executives and rich donors in Deer Valley, Utah.

Schultz’s performance fell flat, according to two attendees who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private proceedings.

Schultz described his rise from modest beginnings in Brooklyn to the peak of the coffee industry and spoke at length on public policy.

His performance was “your classic annoyed CEO why-doesn’t-government-work-like-my great-business thing, which I don’t think is exactly the tone for a Democratic presidential primary,” said one political professional who attended the session. Despite the political nature of the remarks, the person said the mogul did not offer a rationale for a Schultz presidential bid. “That’s what I was waiting for,” the person said. “Where’s the pitch?”

“His message landed with a thud,” said a second attendee. “People were wondering why he’d been invited in the first place.” The attendee said Schultz came across as critical of corporate America, a message that the roomful of wealthy people was not receptive to.

Both attendees said summit participants walked away with the impression that Schultz intended to run. But that prospect has inspired something of a mini “Don’t Draft Schultz” movement among the political and financial press.

“Howard Schultz In the Oval Office? Not So Fast,” declared a headline in the investor publication Barron’s. “Why Howard Schultz Won’t Be President,” was the title of one podcast by the business publication Inc. “No One Is Excited About Starbucks Founder Howard Schultz Running for President,” concluded The Daily Beast after interviewing Democratic leaders.

The pundits were more emphatic. “I Hope Howard Schultz Doesn’t Run for President,” opined Joe Nocera in Bloomberg. “Howard Schultz shouldn’t run for president,“ demanded Helaine Olen in The Washington Post.

Ironically, even many of those cautioning Schultz about a plunge into politics believe he would be good at governing. “He’d be a great president,” Behar said. “He’s smart. He’s pragmatic. He’s not off the deep end.”

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Schultz had been named a post-presidency adviser to former President Barack Obama in 2017. In fact, it was former White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz who was named to that position.



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