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Howard Schultz announced yesterday that he will step down as Starbucks’ chairman at the end of the month, after more than three decades during which he helped to redefine both retailing and coffee consumption on a global scale.

Public service - and a possible run for public office - are possibilities in Schultz’s post-Starbucks life.

“I’ll be thinking about a range of options for myself, from philanthropy to public service, but I’m a long way from knowing what the future holds,” he wrote in a memo to employees yesterday. And, in an interview with the , he said, “I want to be truthful with you without creating more speculative headlines. For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country — the growing division at home and our standing in the world.”

It was about a year ago that Schultz handed off CEO duties to Kevin Johnson. Now, Schultz will hold the title of chairman emeritus. Myron E. Ullman, the former chairman of J. C. Penney, will become Starbucks’s new chairman.

The Seattle Times writes that “Schultz has helped Starbucks navigate one of its most tumultuous periods this spring as the company was in the headlines for the arrests of two black men at a Philadelphia store, an incident Schultz described as deeply embarrassing. The company’s subsequent reaction — a series of policy changes and last week’s high-profile closure of 8,000 U.S. stores to provide anti-racial bias training to 175,000 employees — marked what Schultz called the start of a new era at Starbucks.”

And the New York Times adds, “Under Mr. Schultz’s leadership, Starbucks has waded into debates over social issues such as gay rights, race relations, veterans’ rights, gun violence and student debt. Mr. Schultz was an early champion of the idea of a corporate executive as a moral leader as he sought to achieve what he described as ‘the fragile balance between profit and conscience’.”

Now with more than 27,000 locations and more than 238,000 employees in some 75 countries and with operations on every continent except Antarctica - and more than $22 billion in annual sales, the company has come a long way since it was founded as a single store enterprise in Seattle in 1971. Schultz joined the company as director of marketing in the early eighties and then bought the company from the founders - for less than $4 million - with the goal of providing an Italian coffee experience to an American audience.

Key to Schultz’s strategy was making Starbucks a “third place” - a place other than the home and workplace where people could congregate, enjoy a sense of community, and, of course, drink coffee. And tea. And frappuccinos. And pretty much anything else they could think of.

Yesterday, Schultz returned to the original Starbucks, in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, and wrote a message on a wall-sized chalkboard: “This is where it all began. My dream to build a company that fosters respect and dignity and create a place where we can all come together over a cup of coffee. Onward with love.”
KC's View:
If Schultz indeed has ambitions of running for public office, it was necessary for him to step down from the company, lest it be turned into a political hot potato. (That is what has happened to some degree with Amazon, as founder/CEO Jeff Bezos’ ambitions have widened and he’s done things like buy the Washington Post.) I suspect that if Schultz weren’t serious about running for office, he might’ve stayed a little longer, if only to avoid leaving so soon after the Philadelphia incident.

I have no idea if he will run, or if he can win anything. But I do think this…

I have not always been a big Schultz fan. I think he has a bit of a Messiah complex, with a big ego, and that he has occasionally overstepped in both ambition and execution. But it also seems to me that for the most part his heart is in the right place, that he largely has tried to do the right thing for his employees, his customers, and his company. His career has been about lifting people up, and about aspiration. That’s a pretty good beginning for a political campaign.