When Colby Lenz looks at Starbucks partners (employees) in the store he manages in Kalispell, Montana, he sees himself 20 years earlier – someone just out of high school with aspirations and challenges. He remembers wanting to continue his education, but being wary of college debt.
A lieutenant in the Navy Reserves currently serving in Afghanistan, Lenz’s varied experiences have taught him that it takes time and effort to get to where you want to be, and once you’re there, your path provides inspiration for others looking to continue their education and embark upon their careers.
The son of a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the Korean War before returning home and getting a job with the Burlington Northern railroad, Lenz grew up in Montana before his family relocated to Illinois. After graduating from high school, he began work on an associate’s degree and found employment with a growing rental business. By the time he was 21, Lenz was managing two outlets and squeezing classes into any open time he could find.
Lenz, however, had a couple of long-term goals he always kept in mind. He wanted to earn a bachelor’s degree and get back to Montana.
“While I was proud of working my way through college, I had seen friends get overextended financially or start families and discontinue their education to meet responsibilities,” he recalled. “I decided I wanted to find a way to meet my financial obligations and finish my degree more expeditiously. From my family’s experience in the military and my personal inclinations and values, I always had the idea of joining the military.”
Balancing Service and Education
From December 1999, when he enlisted, until February 2014, when he left active duty, Lenz balanced service in the U.S. Navy with continuing his education. He completed a bachelor of science degree in manufacturing engineering technology from Western Illinois in 2002, added a certificate in nonprofit management in 2009, a certificate in Arabic language and culture in 2010 and a master of education from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2013.
Lenz was commissioned as an ensign after completing Officer Candidate School in Pensacola, Florida, in 2003 and completed flight school two years later. He was deployed to the Persian Gulf three times between 2006 and 2008. In 2010, Lenz transferred to California and began flying search-and-rescue missions over Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada mountain range, earning recognition for rescues of a lost hiker, an injured motocross rider and a downed pilot.
Immediately after completing active duty, Lenz went into the Navy Reserves and started looking for employment, focusing on his long-held desire to get back to Big Sky Country.
“Montana is a beautiful place, but you can’t eat the scenery,” he said.
After searching for jobs in aviation and government, Lenz applied for work with Starbucks. Susan Jayne, a Chicago-based recruiter for the company, came across his resume and got ahold of him in spring 2015.
Jayne was impressed by Lenz’s communications skills and balance of retail and military experience. As much as anything, however, she was struck by the pride he took in helping others advance their own careers.
“Something that is important to our managers at Starbucks is not only lifelong learning, but sharing what you know and helping the partners on your team grow and achieve results together,” said Jayne, who has hired partners from 25 states and all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. “He gave me examples of how he’d trained his replacements twice so he could move on. He was helping others succeed as he was succeeding.”
Two days after that initial interview, Lenz spoke with two Starbucks district managers out of Salt Lake City, Utah. One day later he received an offer and before the month was up he was on the job. After finishing Starbucks training and completing his annual two-week stint with the Navy Reserves, Lenz began co-managing a new Starbucks in Kalispell, eventually taking over full management of the store.
An Assignment in Afghanistan
A city of 20,000 near a number of scenic landmarks, including Glacier National Park a short drive east, Kalispell is a tourist hub for northwest Montana. Lenz helped open the coffeehouse and bring a freshly assembled team up to speed during the summer vacation rush. In July, he learned that he had been selected for Reserve mobilization. He arrived in Afghanistan in February on an assignment he describes as “demanding and challenging, but extremely rewarding” and expects to be back at the Kalispell Starbucks by early 2017.
“I think Starbucks is a company that looks for ways to balance taking care of people and communities while pursuing business drivers and shareholder value, and this is important to me,” Lenz said. “I’m proud to work for a company that gives me a toolkit to try and help my young partners accomplish their goals and dreams. The Navy and other programs have done that for me over the years, giving me the experience and training that I would never have dreamed possible. I’m excited to return home and continue my journey with Starbucks and help others along the way.”
Starbucks is committed to hiring at least 10,000 veterans and military spouses by the end of 2018. Discover more stories about how Starbucks is Paying Tribute and Creating Opportunity for people who've served and sacrified for the country.