Remembering Orin Smith, Starbucks’ former chief executive officer

Orin C. Smith, former chief executive officer at Starbucks, was known for his wit, generosity, deliberate decision making and quiet, steadfast leadership, especially during a time of explosive growth at the company. Smith, 75, died on March 1 of pancreatic cancer.

“He was a humble man, loved and admired by the thousands of partners who had the privilege of knowing him,” Howard Schultz, Starbucks executive chairman wrote in a letter to partners. ”He was the older brother I never had, always providing the wisdom and sage guidance to me and the company, while never seeking the stage nor the spotlight. Always, shining the light and giving the credit to others. He made us all better, especially me. There would be no Starbucks of today, if not for Orin Smith.”

In his time at Starbucks, Smith worked closely with executives Howard Schultz and Howard Behar – so closely the trio was dubbed “H20” (for two Howards and one Orin). The partnership yielded success at Starbucks and a deep, lasting friendship for all three men.


Behar recalls near weekly dinners on Monday nights, when the three would go out for Chinese food. Temperamentally, the three couldn’t have been more different, but it turned out they were a perfect philosophical match.

“Sometimes we’d get to laugh and joke, and sometimes we were sweating it out because of what was happening at work,” Behar said this week. “We were all really different, but we also all somehow got to the same place together.”

Behar, past president of Starbucks, remembered that when Smith was serving as the chief financial officer, he looked for ways to say yes, unlike those typically in that position. 

“Everyone has ideas and wants to do things, and all of it takes time and money. Orin had discipline, but not a dry discipline. It wasn’t, ‘No, you can’t’ but always ‘Let’s see how we can help you make that happen.’”

Deidra Wager, a former Starbucks executive vice president who worked closely with all three, said that kind of connection between leaders is a rare thing.

“As I think back on it, it was really something to behold. And, I’m sure, for them to experience,” Wager said. “It really and truly was a collaboration. They were great together.”

Smith was widely known for being a careful listener and decision maker and for a work style so methodical and deliberate his peers and employees teasingly called him “the tortoise.” After working as chief financial officer, he later became president and chief operating officer and then, in 2000, became chief executive officer. Under Smith’s leadership, Starbucks grew from 45 stores to over 10,000 locations in 33 countries.

In retrospect, his thoughtfulness was the perfect match for the company’s booming growth at that time, Wager said.

“I was opening and running operations in North America at the time, and it was go, go, go – a very intense and fast-paced atmosphere,” Wager said. She remembers going to Smith with questions, and being frustrated at not being able to get a fast answer.

“I’d say, ‘We’ve got to get moving on this!’ But his nickname, the tortoise, was well-deserved,” Wager said, laughing. “Orin was so analytical and thoughtful. He never really reacted much. He was very difficult to read. In the long haul I think it's because he was thinking about it, talking about it, and maybe calibrating with Howard and Howard, and I think we probably made significantly better decisions because of that. He introduced us to a whole new way of working. I would credit him with a lot of the operating and financial discipline that we absolutely had to have.”

Smith was also known for always carrying a yellow legal pad and mechanical pencil with him for financial calculations, writing speeches, or taking notes.

“He was constantly making notes,” Behar said. “He made notes on everything and about everything.”

Said Wager: “One of my first memories of Orin is seeing him sitting in his office, the only person wearing a suit, and he would have his calculator and his legal pad and his mechanical pencil and he was doing whatever CFOs do.”

Just as Smith’s careful leadership provided guard rails during the company’s worldwide expansion, he provided practical road maps to accompany Schultz’s vision and Behar’s enthusiasm.

“What’s brilliant about Howard Schultz is that he’s a visionary. He sees the next mountain top, points to it, and then we’re going for it,” Wager said. “What’s brilliant about Orin is that he was the one to say, ‘OK, everyone, here’s how we get down from this mountain top we’re currently on, and how to get across that canyon and get up to that next mountain top.’ It was so valuable, especially for those of us on the operating side of the spectrum, to have someone like Orin help us figure out how to get there and get there in one piece.”

Wanda Herndon, a former senior vice president of global communications at Starbucks, said no one tipped her off about Smith’s quiet way when she flew in for the day from the East Coast to interview for her position.

“He was so thoughtful that he’d take a moment to pause and think about each response he gave you. I didn’t realize what he was doing, and just kept talking. In my mind, I was trying to fill in the dead space,” she said.

She got feedback that night that everyone she’d interviewed had signed off on her – except Smith. He’d felt that she was interviewing him instead of vice versa, and asked if he could speak to her one more time early the next morning – right when she was due to fly back.

“The best decision of my life is when I said, ‘OK, let me just change my schedule.’ I went back to talk to him wearing the same suit as the day before with a scarf thrown over it, because I’d only brought one,” Herndon said. “I slowed down, and he felt more comfortable with me. He was the last one to say yes. We laughed about that many times over the years.”

Herndon and Smith became friends, and stayed in close touch, even after both retired. Herndon said she learned a lot from him.

“He was like a magician. He was this quiet guy, surrounded by super extroverts, but he knew how to make things happen,” Herndon said. “He was a good, steadying force – always the voice of reason. I learned from him you don't have to be the loudest person in the room to get things done.”

Behar and Herndon both remarked on Smith’s propensity for thoroughness. Whether he was learning to golf, learning the words to a KISS song for a lip sync performance at a leadership conference, or preparing for the Starbucks IPO in 1992, the man never did anything halfway.

“Whatever he decided to do, he did it extremely well,” Herndon said.

Unsurprisingly, then, Smith’s resume reads like a master class in success. He was a high school basketball star who led his team to the state championship. He graduated from Centralia College and the University of Washington before earning his MBA from Harvard. He worked as the State of Washington budget director for five years before coming to Starbucks.

After retiring as chief executive officer of Starbucks, Smith served as a University of Washington regent and on the boards of Disney, Nike and Conservation International.

“Orin was a class act, the quintessential gentleman and a truly great friend. I will always miss his wise counsel, but I’ll miss his friendship most of all.  Orin lived with great purpose, he acted with impeccable integrity, and he treated everyone with endless kindness,” said Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of Disney, said in a statement this week.  “An unabashed Disney fan, he helped lead us through a transformative era of growth, ensuring we’ll continue to entertain the world for generations to come. Orin’s presence was a gift in the lives of everyone who knew him; but, today my thoughts are with his beloved wife, Janet, and their family, who feel his absence most of all.”

Smith has deep roots in Washington State. While he moved to Wyoming with his wife, Janet, several years ago and spent a few months each winter in California, he never forgot where he came from, continuing to stay involved with philanthropic initiatives, including many with the University of Washington and his childhood hometown of Chehalis, Washington.

For all his accomplishments, Smith came from humble beginnings, Behar said. He grew up in the small, southwestern Washington town of Chehalis, where his mother frequently took her children to the public library to check out books. After becoming a successful businessman, Smith returned the dividends of his success, donating millions to his hometown over the years, including a recent $10 million donation to a Student Achievement Initiative. The local branch of the Timberland Regional Library system now bears his mother’s name: Vernetta Smith. The local newspaper, The Chronicle, ran the news of his death and a tribute to his life on the front page. It was the second time Smith had been featured on the front page this year; the first was in January when the newspaper named him Person of the Year.

 “He was also an introvert who became a very successful CEO,” Wager said. “He got the most out of his life in his own, careful way.”