Kevin Johnson has “venti” shoes to fill as the new chief executive officer of Starbucks.
That’s a joke he’s made more than once.
With Howard Schultz stepping down as CEO, Johnson is taking the place of a man whose name has become synonymous with Starbucks over the last 30 years. And Johnson has a lot of work to do.
Under Johnson’s leadership, the chain hopes to grow from roughly 26,000 locations today to 37,000 by 2021. There are plans to open up to 30 upscale Roastery coffee shops around the world. Mobile orders are transforming the brand — but also causing problems for the company. And Starbucks has become a political hot topic, with critics launching boycott campaigns in response to everything from minimalist red cups to the company’s plan to hire 10,000 refugees globally.
We spoke about all these things with Johnson, whose first day as CEO was on April 3, at the company’s headquarters in Seattle. Here’s what we learned.
Johnson and Schultz are very close. A door connects their two offices.
In 2009, a year after Schultz returned as Starbucks’ CEO to resurrect the then-struggling brand following an eight-year hiatus, he asked Johnson to join Starbucks’ board.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” Johnson said. “He’s an iconic merchant. He’s the iconic merchant of my generation.”
A door connects the two men’s offices, and Schultz visits Johnson’s office multiple times a day.
“Whenever that door opens and Howard pops his head in, I know I’m about to go on some exciting adventure,” Johnson said.
Since 2015 when Johnson became Starbucks’ chief operating officer, he and Schultz have worked hand-in-hand to lead the company and plot Starbucks’ strategy for the future. Most notably, the pair co-authored Starbucks’ five-year strategic plan, which was released in December.
Johnson ‘selfishly’ doesn’t want Schultz to run for president.
Over the years, Starbucks’ dedication to social causes has become as well known as the chain’s beverages. With Schultz at the helm, the company has launched campaigns to address everything from Congressional divisions in 2012 to race relations in 2015.
Schultz’s willingness to speak out has led to speculation that he may have his eye on a second career in politics. In 2015, Schultz published an op-ed in The New York Times explaining why he wasn’t planning on running for president. But later in 2016, Schultz told CNN that he would “never say never” on a presidential run. Schultz endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in the months before the 2016 election. Had she won, Schultz would have reportedly been her top pick for labor secretary.
With Johnson as CEO, Schultz says he will stay on as chairman, focusing on social initiatives and the upscale Reserve brand.
“Selfishly, I love having Howard in the office next door, to help me and help Starbucks,” Johnson said, when asked if Schultz would make a good US president. “That would certainly be a very personal decision that he would have to make. But, I am a fan of Howard.”
Starbucks will continue to support progressive social issues.
Both Schultz and Johnson maintain that the company’s social initiatives are based on principles, not politics. However, Schultz’s penchant for taking on social causes has caused some controversy for Starbucks in recent years.
While some initiatives — such as the recently completed goal to hire 10,000 veterans and military spouses — are met with widespread approval, others haven’t gone over as well.
Most recently, critics launched a “boycott Starbucks” campaign after Schultz announced plans to hire 10,000 refugees globally less than a week after President Trump’s signed an executive order attempting to ban refugees from entering the US.
Now, it’s Johnson’s turn to prove if Starbucks will still be a progressive force under the new CEO.
“The question is, ‘Will I continue on the social impact agenda as it relates to the core values of the company?'” he said. “Absolutely.”
Will I continue on the social impact agenda as it relates to the company? Absolutely.”
Johnson said taking a stand on issues like same-sex marriage, which the company publicly came out in support of in 2013, has become a necessary part of Starbucks’ strategy. Johnson said it helps the company attract employees who believe in the same values as the company, which is important.
“I’ve been a part of coauthoring the strategy,” he said. “Part of that strategy is our social impact agenda. That social impact agenda is consistent with our values, and it’s also part of what creates the environment that allows us to attract the partners, and create the environment for those partners to contribute in ways that create that magical Starbucks experience for our customers.”
It also helps Starbucks set itself apart from rivals like Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s.
“A key differentiator for Starbucks it is the emotional connection our partners have to what we stand for, and the fact that we are in the business of human connection,” Johnson said. “I visit stores in different countries, different continents, and they speak different languages, different cultures — but at the end of the day, there is one thing that every person on this planet has in common, and that is the human experience. And that is what we’re about: connecting with the human experience.”