Howard Schultz, the leader of Starbucks, said Thursday he would step down as chief executive next year, handing over to his personally selected successor the management of the company he built into the world’s largest coffee business, with over 25,000 stores in 75 countries.
Schultz, one of the most visible chief executives in the country, has made Starbucks a vocal part of the national conversation on issues such as gun violence, gay rights, race relations, veterans rights and student debt. The handover will take place April 3, and he will remain at the company as executive chairman.
Schultz, 63, will be succeeded by his close friend Kevin Johnson, 56, the company’s current president and a longtime Starbucks board member.
Johnson will take charge of the company’s global business and operations. He joined the Starbucks board in 2009 and has spent years at technology companies including 16 years with Microsoft and five as Juniper Networks CEO.
“This is a big day for me,” Schultz said in an interview. “I love the company as much as I love my family.”
But he said he decided it was the right time to hand the keys to Johnson, whom he described as being “better equipped” to “run the company than I am,” ticking off a list of Johnson’s operational talents, saying that he wanted to “relinquish the role and responsibility to the right person.”
Schultz, who joined Starbucks more than 30 years ago, will become executive chairman of the company to focus on innovation and social impact activities, among other things.
In a message to Starbucks employees, Schultz spoke of his “enduring love” for the company and called himself “incredibly excited” to work on projects such as the expansion of premium Starbucks Roasteries around the world.
He is credited with turning around the coffee chain’s fortunes since returning as its CEO in 2008. Schultz has overseen the expansion of the company’s popular loyalty program and mobile app and worked to expand food and beverage offerings.
Although the change might come as a surprise to the public and some Starbucks employees, the company has been sending signals to Wall Street for the past year about its intentions to carry out a succession, announcing a reorganization in the summer that gave Johnson oversight of the daily operations.
Johnson, a soft-spoken operator known for his focus on building Starbucks’ mobile payments systems and on executing the company’s global strategy, has been on a listening tour with employees during the past year to better appreciate the company’s culture. Conversations with store managers who told intimate stories about their passion and relationship with the company have been known to bring Johnson to tears.
The succession plan is the second time Schultz has sought to step back from overseeing the company. He became the company’s chairman in 2000 but returned as chief executive in 2008 after firing the installed chief, James Donald, as sales faltered. During his period as chairman, he had pursued other activities including buying the Seattle SuperSonics, which he later sold to an Oklahoma City investment group. Upon returning to Starbucks as chief executive, Schultz increased the company’s market value to $84 billion from $15 billion.
Schultz and Johnson met in the early 2000s when Schultz worked with Microsoft to help bring wireless internet to Starbucks stores. They became close friends, and Johnson became a sounding board for Schultz. Johnson joined the Starbucks board in 2009.
Speaking on a conference call, Johnson called Schultz one of the world’s “most iconic leaders and entrepreneurs.”
During an interview with CNN in September, Schultz publicly endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and did not rule out running for office at some point. In his message to employees Thursday, he said he planned to extend his “focus on our social impact agenda.”
The move is likely to ignite renewed speculation about whether Schultz is paving the way to leave the company entirely to enter politics. His outspoken positions on social issues have led many people, including his closest friends, to say he may run for president. He has spent an increasing amount of time traveling around the country speaking publicly about the need to fix the “dysfunction in Washington.”
Schultz said he intends for the company to “maintain our moral courage.”
As for whether Schultz is laying the groundwork to run for president, he said, “I’m all in on all things Starbucks and have no plans to run for public office.” Asked whether he might change his mind in the future, he said, “That’s the way I feel today.”
The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.