Behind the scenes of Starbucks' CEO transition

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Incoming Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson shares a coffee with his predecessor Howard Schultz
Incoming Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson shares a coffee with his predecessor Howard Schultz

Starbucks' SVP of global comms Corey duBrowa outlines strategy behind last week's announcement of the coffee co.'s plan to move former Microsoft exec Kevin Johnson up to CEO as Howard Schultz becomes exec chairman.

How long in advance were you planning the CEO transition?

This was a thorough, well thought-out succession plan that involved the Starbucks board of directors over the past two years.

What factors determined Starbucks’ communications strategy?

Three years ago, Howard talked about the seismic shifts occurring in retail and the challenges facing traditional brick and mortar businesses. While many companies won’t survive this shift, Starbucks saw an opportunity in this change in market dynamics, and invested ahead of the curve in creating enhancements to the experience across the store portfolio and investing in best-in-class digital and mobile technologies, which our customers have adopted in record numbers.

Our "premium-ization" strategy will require Howard’s full focus and attention; and as he has said, Kevin was best prepared to lead the company as CEO so the raising of our foundation at scale could occur at the proper pace and with the right degree of skill brought to new capabilities such as the evolution of our technology and supply chain teams.

How did you involve Starbucks staffers in the process?

Any communication of a major initiative at Starbucks starts, first and foremost, with our 330,000 partners who wear the green apron in 75 countries around the world. Our strategy optimized for partner-first communication, directly from Howard and Kevin, prior to any Street or media engagement. And wrapping the day [Thursday] with an appropriately emotional "open forum" with our people, both webcast and broadcast via Facebook Live (Workplace) internally.

What is the timetable for the transition?

Howard and Kevin’s roles will change in April 2017. After that, Howard will still be with the company moving forward as executive chairman, focused full time on premium coffee offerings, Reserve brand and retail concepts, the introduction of additional Starbucks Roasteries in key cities around the world, as well as continuing to champion the company’s social impact initiatives.

How would you describe Howard Schultz’s legacy?

Since joining Starbucks in 1982 as director of marketing and operations when the company had four stores in Seattle, Howard’s accomplishments as one of the most visionary leaders, merchants, and CEOs of his generation speak for themselves—Starbucks Coffee Company has emerged as one of the world’s most recognizable and iconic brands, a company that has provided opportunity for hundreds of thousands of partners and a Third Place for tens of millions of customers every week.

Beyond these accomplishments, his legacy is the special culture he created and nurtured, helping the company navigate significant changes in the global business and economic environment while retaining a focus on the mission, purpose, and guiding principles we have held in highest esteem since we were originally founded in 1971: inspiring and nurturing the human spirit, one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time.

This article first appeared in PR Week.