Howard Schultz: The King of Coffee Who Transformed Starbucks

1 minutes reading time
Published 7 Jun 2024
Reviewed by: Emil Persson

Howard Schultz, the former chairman and CEO of Starbucks, is a name synonymous with coffee culture. His journey from a modest upbringing to leading one of the world's most recognizable brands in the arguably commoditized industry of coffee is truly a remarkable achievement. This article explores Schultz's life, his impact on Starbucks, and his broader influence on business and society.

Key Insights

  • Grand vision: Howard Schultz transformed Starbucks from a small coffee bean retailer into a global coffeehouse empire with the vision of creating a welcoming "third place" for customers and coffee lovers.

  • Employee welfare innovation: Influenced by his father's struggles, Schultz introduced groundbreaking employee benefits, including comprehensive healthcare and stock options for part-time workers.

  • Inspired by Italy: Schultz's inspiration from Italian espresso bars led to a successful reimagining of Starbucks' business model, focusing on customer experience and community.

The Brooklyn Beginnings

Howard Schultz was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1953, into a poor working-class family. His father, Fred Schultz, worked a series of low-paying jobs, including truck driver and factory worker. One pivotal moment in Schultz's life occurred when his father broke his ankle on the job and was fired without medical benefits or compensation. This experience deeply influenced Schultz's perspective on employee welfare and benefits, a theme he would carry into his future business practices.

The Starbucks Epiphany

In 1981, Schultz was working as the director of retail operations and marketing for a Swedish housewares company, Hammarplast. During this time, he noticed that a small coffee bean shop in Seattle was placing unusually large orders. Curious as he was, Schultz decided to visit the store, which turned out to be Starbucks. Captivated by the passion and knowledge the founders had for coffee, Schultz saw potential for growth and joined the company a year later as the director of marketing.

The Italian Inspiration

A trip to Milan in 1983 was then the big turning point for Schultz. He was struck by the vibrant coffee culture in Italy, particularly the espresso bars, which served as community hubs. Schultz was inspired and envisioned bringing a similar experience to the United States. However, the Starbucks founders were initially resistant to this idea, preferring to focus solely on selling high-quality coffee beans and equipment. This led to Schultz leaving Starbucks in 1985 to start his own coffeehouse chain, Il Giornale, which became an immediate success.

The Acquisition of Starbucks

In 1987, Schultz seized the opportunity to purchase Starbucks for $3.8 million. He merged it with his own company, Il Giornale, and began to rapidly expand the Starbucks brand. Under his leadership, Starbucks then embarked on an aggressive expansion, growing from 11 stores in 1987 to over 30,000 globally today. Schultz's strategy focused on creating a "third place" between home and work, emphasizing customer experience, premium coffee, and a cozy atmosphere.

Further reading: The Starbucks Story: From Beans to Billions

The 2008 Comeback

Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks in 2000. He transitioned to the role of Chief Global Strategist and continued to serve as the Chairman of the Board. In 2008, amid a declining economy and internal challenges, Starbucks was struggling badly. Schultz then returned as CEO, and one of his first actions was to close all U.S. stores for a day to retrain baristas on the art of making espresso. This move was symbolic of his dedication to quality and authenticity. Schultz also focused on streamlining operations, closing underperforming stores, and reinvigorating the brand’s core values. His efforts paid off, leading to a significant turnaround and renewed growth for Starbucks, whose stock has returned 16x since then.

A Vision Beyond Starbucks

In 2018, Schultz stepped down as executive chairman and CEO of Starbucks, sparking speculation about a potential run for political office. Although he ultimately decided not to pursue a presidential bid, Schultz continues to be an influential voice in business and philanthropy. He has authored several books, including "Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time" and "From the Ground Up: A Journey to Reimagine the Promise of America," sharing his insights and experiences.


Howard Schultz's journey from his humble beginnings in a Brooklyn housing project to becoming a billionaire businessman and philanthropist is nothing short of inspirational. Schultz’s innovative approach to employee benefits, steadfast dedication to quality, and relentless efforts to drive positive social change have not only transformed Starbucks into a global powerhouse but have also set new benchmarks in the business world.

These anecdotes of Schultz’s life and career are more than just milestones; they are powerful narratives that illustrate the impact of perseverance and authenticity. They serve as a guiding light for aspiring leaders, emphasizing the importance of staying true to one's values and the profound difference that can be made when business goals align with the greater good.

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