Starbucks and I have had an on again/off again relationship over the years. I like Starbucks for their consistency- I know that whether I’m in Seattle or Atlanta my caramel macchiato is going to taste like a caramel macchiato- but I’m not a huge fan of the taste of their coffee. I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a coffee snob having grown up in the Northwest, but the older I get, the more I just want to drink coffee. Nothing fancy, just a cup of joe, and more often than not these days, just black. When it comes to a pure cup of coffee without the added sugars and other fancy stuff, Starbucks just doesn’t really cut it. Also, there is the whole big business thing, and I wanted to support more local venues. And so for the past few years Starbucks has usually had me as a customer purely for the sake of convenience- if you need a little something to get you through, you can more than likely find a Starbucks nearby without much effort. This is all about to change.
Over the weekend I read a short article from Forbes that a friend had posted on Facebook about comments made by a shareholder at Starbucks annual meeting last week. What transpired in that meeting has insured that I will happily patronize Starbucks forevermore.
Last November, Washington state (where I happily reside) decided to pass a referendum legalizing gay marriage. Leading up to the election, the company being based in the state, Starbucks put forth a statement explaining their support in passing the referendum. After this announcement, many customers who did not agree with this stance took up a protest against the company.
At the meeting last week, a shareholder asked Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz about the support for gay marriage as the boycott hurt the company’s bottom line that quarter. Schultz’s response was amazing. The Forbes article quotes him as stating:
“Not every decision is an economic decision. Despite the fact that you recite statistics that are narrow in time, we did provide a 38% shareholder return over the last year. I don’t know how many things you invest in, but I would suspect not many things, companies, products, investments have returned 38% over the last 12 months. Having said that, it is not an economic decision to me. The lens in which we are making that decision is through the lens of our people. We employ over 200,000 people in this company, and we want to embrace diversity. Of all kinds.”
The article links to a video of this exchange, and at this point, the audience literally explodes in applause ( I encourage you to read the article and watch the video- it’s only a minute long and totally worth it). Schultz then goes on to tell the shareholder that it is a free country, and he can sell his shares if he so wishes.
Many of the responses to this exchange that I have read in the past two days seem to express how novel it is that a business man is looking past the bottom line- and while I feel this is the correct theme and message to take away, many of them are focusing on the wrong part of Schultz’s response. Most news outlets seem fixated on the quote telling the shareholder to sell his shares, but I think the most important part of the statement is when he says that it is not an economic decision.
This was so completely refreshing to hear, and to see the idea in action. I am glad that he defended Starbucks stance because the issue of marriage equality is one that is important to me, but that is not why his statement had such an impact on me; it had larger implications. It said that some things are more important than the bottom line. I know that there are many business today that are trying to be aware of their environmental impact, and are trying to make real change and contributions in their communities. However, it seems that big business struggles with maintaining their moral commitments when it affects quarterly returns. Schultz proved last week that Starbucks cares about more than just continuing to make money- they recognize the social responsibility they have as a global employer, and they are trying to take care of people- that is what is most important.
I hope that other large companies take notice of this event and see and hear how excited people were when Schultz defended the company’s stance on equal rights. I believe that people want to see big business take action and desire to hear them say that some things are more important than the bottom line. In telling the shareholder to sell his stock, I don’t think Schultz hurt his company- I bet he just made more people want to invest. I know that I want to invest in companies that I believe are making a difference and stand for something, and I am pretty sure that many others feel this way also. I have hope that just maybe this can be a wake up call for other big businesses.
So bravo Mr. Schultz- while I still want to support local coffee shops, I will no longer hesitate to step into one of your stores. In fact I will celebrate it. I’ll just make sure to order an Americano instead of regular coffee- I am still a coffee snob after all.