Cliff Burrows doesn’t hold back when the subject is art.
After attending the opening celebration of Kehinde Wiley’s “A New Republic” exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), Cliff Burrows, Starbucks group president, U.S. and Americas, enthusiastically endorses the artist and his work.
“It’s a hugely accessible collection,” Burrows said. “It’s going to be a very popular exhibition, and I’d encourage people to see it because it helps reframe what art is about.”
A member of the Seattle Art Museum’s Board of Trustees, Burrows has fostered a lifelong passion for visual arts that extends from his youth in his native Wales to Zambia, London, Amsterdam and Seattle, where he’s resided since taking over Starbucks U.S. operations in 2008.
Burrows joined Starbucks in 2001 as managing director of the United Kingdom. “I really wanted to get into a business where it was about the human connection and what better way to do that than to sell coffee in a tea-drinking country,” Burrows said with a laugh. Prior to coming to America, Burrows spent two years as president of Starbucks Coffee Europe, Middle East and Africa, leading the region as it grew to more than 1,350 stores in 24 countries.
As part of the Starbucks Newsroom’s quarterly series on company leaders, we spoke to Burrows about the impact art has had on his professional life, his career path before joining Starbucks, and advice for Starbucks partners (employees).
Where does your engagement with the art world come from?
For no reason I can recall, I developed a passion for drawing. There was little or no encouragement from the family. It was just something that I truly enjoyed doing from a very early age. I eventually studied art at school. I think the teachers and my parents had a different view of my artistic abilities. One said I should go ahead and study fine arts at college and the other one said, “He can’t paint a barn door without having drips running down it.”
I eventually went into retail and had a chance to work for a company run by an entrepreneur named Terrance Conran. Habitat Designs grew up in the ‘60s. It was about home furnishings – bringing beautiful design to Spartan post-World War II Britain. I just thought I’d truly died and gone to heaven, because here I could work in retail and I was surrounded by beautiful, well-designed products.
Part of the transformation of Habitat Designs, which I was fortunate to play a part in, was bringing young British artists into the retail space. We did the first exhibition of Tracy Emin’s work, as well as Gary Hume, Gavin Turk and quite a few other young British artists. Over time, that led to a real connection with the Hayward Gallery in London. I just loved the way that gallery showed the work. It was an intimate-sized gallery and always current and topical – often challenging.
Fast forward, I moved to Amsterdam and was surrounded by museums. I lived on the same street as the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh collection there.
Then I moved to America. In 2008, there was no time for art or color or frankly much personal richness. For 18 months I just had my head down, working with the team on the transformation of Starbucks U.S. operation. As the company came out of that phase, I knew I wanted to get involved in community and I needed something that gave me some energy and perspective. I was introduced to SAM. It has been something that keeps on giving.
How do you think your formative years shaped your management style?
My dad worked in manual jobs all his life. My parents were always working hard to keep money in the bank and trying to progress to a better life. And they were always bold. They moved to Africa when I was 8 and sent me back to school in the UK when I was 10. So I learned independence and to embrace diversity at a very early age. I was at boarding school in the UK with people from all over the world. At the age of 10, I shared my dormitory with an American, a Nigerian, a Libyan, a Saudi Arabian and an Indian.
That inspired openness and curiosity, and a passion for travel. It’s about meeting people and making connections. We do those connections over coffee and the parallel for me is the connection through art.
What was your first encounter with Starbucks?
Good friends were living in New York and we were traveling over to see them. Jet lagged on Saturday morning down by the West Side Highway, my wife and I went for a walk by the World Financial Center. I just remember, “Oh! Coffeeshop!” I wandered in and had my first true Starbucks experience.
I was at my old company for about 19 years. It was time to move on and, by chance, someone introduced me to Starbucks and said, “Have you ever read Howard Schultz’s book, ‘Pour Your Heart into It’?” I got a copy and was just browsing that when I received a call. I believe in fate. I believe in opportunity. I went to a series of interviews where Starbucks truly came to life for me.
In November 2000, I came out to meet the team in Seattle and I went to Pike Place Market and I just said, “I understand the third place everyone has been talking about.” The store experience was so authentic. It was part of the market. It showed me community. It was about people coming together over coffee.
I was able to walk the streets of Seattle early in the morning and see the different stores and how they came to life within their local communities. Then I came to the SSC, met some incredible people and said, “I’ve got to work for this company. The rest is, as they say, history.”
Given your atypical career path, do you have any advice for partners who are just starting out?
I think we all at one stage realize our own life is a unique journey. What I realize as I meet more young people is they all have an incredible story to share. They’ve all got a different set of circumstances and different aspirations.
Starbucks gives our partners an opportunity to belong and grow their careers as they wish and be part of something bigger than any of us. Part of that is for Opportunity Youth – giving them a first point of access. I think the Starbucks College Achievement Plan is such a life-changing opportunity for a partner wherever to begin a bachelor's degree, or finish one they never completed because life got in the way. I would certainly encourage all partners without a degree to take a good look at the ASU program. People can succeed in retail and succeed at Starbucks as long as they take advantage of opportunities.
What we’re seeing with the opportunities Starbucks is creating – whether it’s for youth, through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, or support for the veterans community – is that we’re all richer and more fulfilled as a result. The broader community is better off and our company is, too.