A conversation with new Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson

Kevin Johnson counts a timepiece from the late 19th century and a book from the early 21st century among his most treasured possessions.

The newly minted successor to Howard Schultz as Starbucks chief executive officer keeps the former at his home. A restored pocket watch originally owned by his great-grandfather, who repaired railroad tracks in the Dakotas, it reminds Johnson of family, perseverance and the value of hard work.

“He operated one of those handcars. The pocket watch was very important because it would tell him when the train was coming and he had to get off the track,” Johnson said with a laugh.

The book, which he keeps in his office at Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, is “Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry,” a 2001 collection of advice and aphorisms from John Wooden, whose UCLA basketball teams were setting a still-unsurpassed standard of success when Johnson was developing his hoops game as a youth growing up in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Wooden, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, was famous for his meticulous approach to coaching, which began with teaching new recruits how to properly pull on their socks and lace up their shoes.

“I would study everything about John Wooden,” Johnson recalled. “I even gave speeches about some of the lessons he taught about paying attention to the details. Coach Wooden heard about that and signed a book for me. He wrote: ‘To Kevin, Best wishes. Keep those socks pulled up.’

“The thing I liked is UCLA always played as a team. I believe the power of a team is greater than any individual on the team.”

Johnson, a member of the Starbucks Board of Directors since 2009, was appointed president and chief operating officer in March 2015. Beginning today (April 3), he takes over as chief executive officer while outgoing ceo Howard Schultz becomes executive chairman and shifts his focus to innovation, design and development of Starbucks Reserve® Roasteries around the world, expansion of the Starbucks Reserve® retail store format and the company’s social impact initiatives. 

A longtime executive in the tech industry who spent 16 years at Microsoft and five years as ceo of Juniper Networks, Johnson also served on the National Telecommunications Advisory Committee under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Seated in his office overlooking the Seattle skyline, Johnson talked about his formative experiences in sports and computing, his path to Starbucks and his resolve after a health scare to “spend my time with things that are joyful, with people I love.”

Starbucks sat down with Johnson shortly before he reported for work for the first time as Starbucks ceo.

Los Alamos must have been a very interesting place to have grown up, given its role in 20th century American history and its small size. How did that environment shape you?

It’s a small town – 15,000 people. It was a community where most of my friends’ parents worked at the Los Alamos National Labs. It was a place where there were a lot of scientists and mathematicians. But it was also a small community. People knew each other and cared about each other. I’d go to the grocery store with my mother and every parent in the town knew my mom, because she was the pediatric nurse in town. She knew every child and every parent.

You took a turn from sports toward computing when you were in college. This is in the late ’70s, early ’80s. At that point, could you envision how technology would shape our daily lives in the years ahead?

No. Timing was everything. I learned to write software on a precursor to what became the IBM personal computer and the Mac. I had no foresight into where this was going to go. I just thought, this is a new computer and I’m going to learn to write software on it. I guess it was fun because it was a creative exercise. It was problem-solving, but you would create something you could show people on the screen. People were like, “Wow! How did you do that? It’s magical.” It was one of those things you’d get so passionate about. I’d go down to the computer center until two in the morning working on software and just be excited about it.

It was like you gave up the jump shot in the gym for the computer lab writing software.

Yeah, it was. Playing college basketball, the competition got harder. [Laughs] Part of it had to do with the limits of my basketball skills and I found this new skill. Life’s journey is sort of that way. All of a sudden a new door opens and you take that and say, “I’ve got these memories and experiences here, but I’m going to pursue this.”

Your techie side is often highlighted in the press. Is that how you picture yourself?

Not really. I spent 34 years in the tech industry and that’s why people perceive that. The people I worked with in the tech industry were a lot more technical than I was. A lot of my roles were leading sales & marketing and leading business functions that interfaced with customers. I worked with some of the greatest thought leaders in the industry. My role was to help bring their visions to life. I was more about mobilizing people and connecting with customers. Certainly I understood the technology.

You’ve revealed a brush with skin cancer that prompted you to step away from work for a time. How did that experience shape the way you approach your work today?

I refer to it as one of those clarifying moments in life. You go for an annual physical and the doctor asks you a question: “How long have you had that mole on your arm?” And you say, “It doesn’t look unfamiliar.” Two days later, you go to a skin specialist and they do some surgery and they tell you you have melanoma.

It was almost a year that I continued to work as a ceo. I was having to cancel or reschedule doctor appointments as I was dealing with that issue. And I thought, why am I doing that? Why am I wired to the point that I’m going to prioritize some business commitment over a health priority that could be fatal? It prompted me to step back and say, “It’s not the right priority for me in my life.”

It also changed my mindset about how I want to spend my time for the rest of my life. I only want to spent my time on things that are joyful, with people I love. It’s liberating, because it’s that simple for me. If it doesn’t fit that criteria, then it’s easy for me to say, “That’s something I don’t need to be spending my time on.” I think about how I invest my time and I think about the world very differently today than I did 10 years ago.

Can you give an example?

My youngest son was born in the morning – 6 or 7 a.m. I think by 4 or 5 o’clock in the evening I was on a plane to go to a business offsite. I arrived that evening and the next day at the offsite I felt nauseous. I thought, why did I do that? Why am I here? I should be with my family. So I got back on a plane and went home.

I’m not proud of that. Why was I wired to the point that I didn’t take the time to enjoy a special moment in life? Today I would make a very different decision.

I’ve got a 2-year-old grandson. I remember one afternoon Howard said, “What are you doing tonight? Want to have dinner together?” I said, “Sorry, Howard. I’m going to be with my grandson tonight.” He smiled and said, ‘Fantastic! Have fun.” Now maybe 10 years ago or 20 years ago, I might have felt that Howard wanted to talk and made a different decision. 

When did you first meet Howard?

It was probably around 2001. Howard sent a letter to Bill Gates at Microsoft proposing that Microsoft partner with Starbucks to bring wi-fi to Starbucks stores in return for Starbucks promoting some of Microsoft’s consumer products. Steve Ballmer and I met with Howard and Steve asked me to take the lead working with Howard on the project. That’s how our relationship began.

At the Starbucks Shareholders Meeting this year you spoke of having “venti-sized shoes to fill.” How do you approach that challenge?

I realize that a lot of people will want to compare me with Howard, which is fine. But I’m not going to fall into the trap of trying to be Howard. I’m going to be authentic to who I am as a person and who I am as a leader. That’s number one.

Number two, I don’t think of this as a transition of Howard to me. I think of it as a transition from Howard to team. I think we have a world-class senior leadership team. We have partners in this company that have decades of experience and a passion to contribute. A big part of my job is getting the best of our partners in our company.

The third thing is Howard is still here. He’s my partner and he’s a friend and we’ve worked together for the last eight years on the Board and the last two years in my role as chief operating officer. He’s here to support me and support the company.

You’ve referenced a listening tour of stores you’ve taken over the last several months. Are there encounters that stand out for you?

One of the most powerful one was in a store in the South Side of Chicago. Six partners were sharing what brought them to Starbucks and what Starbucks means to them. There was a woman who started her story by saying, “These are my partners and they are my Starbucks family and I love them.” She said she’d been a partner for four years. At the end of her first year of being a partner she got a call saying that her oldest child had been tragically killed in an accident. She said, “My partners surrounded me with love. They helped me raise money so I could give my child a proper burial. The Starbucks CUP Fund kicked in money to help me and my family. And my Starbucks family helped me through the worst time in my life. And I love them.” Tears were streaming down her cheeks and her partners handed her a tissue and gave her a hug. I’d just met these people and they were Starbucks partners sharing their stories

The stories I hear are so authentic, so vulnerable and so real. They demonstrate the love that partners show for each other and for our customers. Just beautiful, and they’re real. 

Do you have a favorite Starbucks store?

I certainly have my home store that I go to in Bellevue. I have a store here on the 8th floor that I visit a lot! And there are so many stores I have visited around the world.

One of my favorite Starbucks stores in the world is in Kerry Centre in Beijing. It’s a beautiful store that represents Starbucks with design aspects of Chinese culture and an amazing group of Starbucks partners. 

How would characterize your game as a basketball player?

I was a power forward. My ball handling skills were OK but not good enough for the guard position. I was tall but not tall enough to go against the big centers. Fortunately, I had a good jump shot from top of the key. I was quick and could set a good pick and roll. We would move the ball around to get it to the right player to take the shot. We played as a team and many times I would be the guy who took the shot. I still go out and shoot hoops.

Did you fill out a NCAA bracket?

Given everything going on here at Starbucks I didn’t get my bracket filled out, but I have watched many of the games. This weekend was especially exciting. 

Do you have a favorite for the end of your first day at work?

Given the Zags are from the Pacific Northwest and Scott Maw, our cfo, went to Gonzaga, I am going with the Zags.

What’s your first day of work in your new role going to look like? Will it feel any different?

It will be a special day for me, but because we’ve been planning for so long to ensure a smooth transition, it should be a pretty normal day. For me, it’s a day to reflect on the responsibility I have to the 330,000 partners in this company. For everybody else, it should just be another day at Starbucks.

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New Starbucks merch collaboration celebrates togetherness and joy in the everyday