Howard Schultz coming back to Starbucks as Kevin Johnson retires

The longtime former CEO of the Seattle-based coffee giant will replace Johnson as CEO on an interim basis as it looks for a permanent successor.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson
Photo courtesy of Starbucks

Kevin Johnson is retiring as CEO of Starbucks, the company said on Wednesday, and his replacement—at least for now—is a familiar one: Howard Schultz.

Schultz, who ceded the top job to Johnson five years ago, will take the position on an interim basis while Starbucks’ board of directors looks for a permanent replacement, expected this fall. He will receive a salary of $1.

Johnson will leave his role on April 4 and will serve as a special consultant through September.

“Kevin and the entire executive team stepped up to the challenge of the pandemic and navigated one of the most difficult periods in modern history,” Mellody Hobson, Starbucks board chair, said in a statement.

She cited Johnson’s role providing employees with economic certainty during the COVID shutdown as well as the company’s rapid growth in its Starbucks Rewards loyalty program in the U.S. and China. Johnson has been on the company’s board since 2009 and was named its president and chief operating officer in 2015. He was named CEO in 2017.

He said in a statement that he told the board a year ago that he would consider retirement once the pandemic neared its end. “I feel this is a natural bookend to my 13 years with the company,” he said. “As I make this transition, we are very fortunate to have a founder who is able to step in on an interim basis, giving the board time to further explore potential candidates and make the right long-term succession decision for the company.”

The move instantly opens one of the industry’s biggest positions, as well as one of its most scrutinized. Johnson’s successor will have to deal with a myriad of issues—notably a growing move to unionize the company’s restaurants, which has spread to 145 locations. Six locations have voted to unionize. 

But it remains a juggernaut, one of the world’s biggest brands and the second largest restaurant chain in the U.S., behind only McDonald’s, and one that has helped push the envelope on the use of technology to ease the ordering process, build loyalty with consumers and simplify store operations.

The man who helped create this, Schultz, remains a key figure in and around the company and will return for a time to serve as a bridge until the new CEO comes on board. He led the company from 1987 to 2018, growing the chain from 11 locations to more than 28,000 and enjoying a stock price that increased 21,000% during his tenure.

“When you love something, you have a deep sense of responsibility to help when called,” he said in a statement. “Although I did not plan to return to Starbucks, I know the company must transform once again to meet a new and exciting future where all of our stakeholders mutually flourish.”

Johnson is the third high-profile industry CEO to leave his position this month, following Wingstop’s Charlie Morrison earlier this week and Domino’s Ritch Allison.

It's worth noting that one person who might have been a logical successor to Johnson, former Chief Operating Officer Roz Brewer, left Starbucks last year to take the top job at Walgreens.

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