The trip to Shanghai and Beijing was Narasimhan’s first visit outside of North America since he became chief executive officer of Starbucks on March 20.
Laxman Narasimhan (纳思瀚), chief executive officer of Starbucks, has lived all around the world, held key leadership roles at a number of major companies and speaks six languages. But on his recent trip to China, Starbucks second largest market after the United States, he was there to learn.
“I have so much to learn from all of you,” he told the hundreds of Starbucks partners gathered during an open forum. “... Thank you for welcoming me into your house.”
During his first trip outside of North America since becoming ceo, he visited a number of stores across a variety of formats in Beijing and Shanghai, the Starbucks China Coffee Innovation Park, slated to open later this year, and more. Each store and location offered a window into the unique Starbucks Experience of partners and customers in China. The visit comes less than a month after Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder and chairman emeritus, visited partners in Beijing, where he opened the first Starbucks in China in 1999. Schultz’s bold vision for the China business is legendary, as is his enduring love for partners in Starbucks second largest global market. It's a passion now shared by Narasimhan.
“I come with a great deal of respect,” Narasimhan told partners. “... And it’s amazing to see what you have done with coffee culture – the love you have for coffee and how we try and radiate that love to all the people around is amazing. (During my visit), I got to see the partners, the passion, the love for the company, the love for what you do.”
Over nearly 25 years, Starbucks has grown from one store in China to more than 6,200 across over 240 cities today and, on average, opens a new store about every nine hours, a feat Narasimhan attributes to Belinda Wong, chairwoman and chief executive officer of Starbucks China, and the strong all-Chinese leadership team. Wong, who has been with Starbucks for more than 20 of those years, is known not just for her business savvy – she regularly appears on lists of the most powerful businesswomen by Forbes and in Fortune – but also her passion for partners and communities.
Since January, before taking the helm as ceo, Narasimhan has been meeting virtually with Wong and members of the China Leadership Team each week so he could better understand the business.
“To Belinda and the China leadership team, I thank you,” he said, acknowledging their critical role that has made Starbucks a premiere brand in China through creating remarkable store experiences for customers, nurturing strong relationships with stakeholders and contributing to the specialty coffee industry. At the foundation of the company’s success is the leadership team’s commitment to caring for the 60,000 partners in China, with unprecedented investments such as critical illness insurance that covers not just Starbucks partners in China, but also their parents.
“I know what you and our China partners have been through over the last three years,” he told Wong and the leadership team. “… Thank you for keeping the faith. Thank you for remaining courageous. And thank you for continuing to build Starbucks China during that very difficult period. I deeply and personally thank all of you.”
Narasimhan stressed the company’s long-term commitment to China. “We have been here for 24 years. We want to be here for the next 25 and the next hundred beyond that. … I want you to know that that this is a long-term vision for us,” he said. “We have limitless possibilities in China – limitless.”
Limitless human connection
One of Starbucks priorities is to become truly global, Narasimhan said. Another is to drive innovation, which is something that China is at the forefront of doing – not only with the products that are sold but in building bridges that connect people, whether that’s at a popup store in Beijing (top photo) or creating an environment that inspires, such as the Starbucks heritage culture gallery store in Beijing where a regular customer often sketches and paints (bottom photo). “We’re in the business of human connections and the opportunities are truly limitless,” he said.
Sometimes the connections are not only limited to humans. Narasimhan also visited one of the pet-friendly stores in China (second row, far right), pioneered by Wong, which feature special menu items and seating areas where owners and their pets can be together.
Gathering together, honoring the past and future
Starbucks now has more than 6,200 stores in more than 240 cities across the Chinese mainland – but it all started with the first store in Beijing that opened nearly 25 years ago, a place Narasimhan visited during his trip (second row, left). “This is the place where Starbucks started and from where Starbucks has grown.”
He also visited the Xitieying Wanda signing store in Beijing, where partners led a coffee tasting with Narasimhan, which was conducted in sign language. They taught him to make a heart shape with his thumb and index fingers. The store is one of a dozen in China so far and embodies Starbucks promise that, when it’s at its best, the company is building bridges to a better future for partners who proudly wear the green apron.
“You mean a lot to Starbucks. You mean a lot to me,” he told partners at one of the open forums (top photo).
In each of the stores he visited, he made a point to greet every partner. Narsimhan is a fully trained barista himself who works in stores a half-day each month to stay close to the realities of working in a retail store. One of those he met was Ricky Gu, store manager at the Shanghai Jiayuting store.
“It’s great that we finally get to meet him in person,” said Gu. “After listening to his story, I can feel his identification with Starbucks culture and values. He is a great listener who remembers all our names and stories. Having such a leader gives me a lot of confidence in Starbucks future.”
After each event, partners flocked to the China Partner App to share their stories of meeting the new ceo:
“Laxman came and gave fist bumps to all our partners in the store. Every day at Starbucks is so warm and happy!” — Shawn Xiao, barista in Beijing Fun store
“I was proud to host Laxman at our first store in China. Laxman gave us a lot of love, warmth and confidence. We are more motivated than ever to work shoulder to shoulder to achieve a brighter future.” — Kelvin Zhang, shift supervisor, Beijing China World Mall 4 store
“Laxman was very warm and approachable. We took photos together, shouting out ‘we are family!’” — Jennie Zhu, store manager, Shanghai Bingo Plaza store
“Laxman highlighted the importance of focusing on store partners. He gave us a sense of warmth and belonging. The future is full of limitless opportunities because we have each other.” — Joy Gou, Shift Supervisor, Walmart North Linyi Road store, Shanghai
Connecting as partners
During Partner Open Forums held in Beijing and Shanghai, Narasimhan spoke to partners, sharing his vision and hopes for the future, enjoyed coffee tastings led by partners and answered questions from them including how many cups of coffee he drinks a day (seven, he said, “but then I didn’t sleep so now I’m at four”) and what his favorite coffee beverage is (Doppio macchiato, which reminds him of the coffee he grew up with in South India).
When a partner asked him if he has a motto that has guided him during his life, he said he does. “My motto is ‘Be yourself.’ Because when you be yourself, and you operate in an environment, where you create the license for people to look up and speak and be themselves, magic happens. So thank you for letting me be me. And thank you for being you. And together, we can make magic.”
“We feel so much closer to Laks after his China visit,” said Raymond Zhang, Shanghai Support Center partner. “We hope it has given him a vivid, firsthand experience of the rapid changes and development in China over the years. And we hope he will visit his Starbucks China family more often in the future.”
“We are at our best when we give more than we take from the environment,” said Narasimhan. During his visit, he stopped by several Greener Stores, including the first Greener Store in China, located in Shanghai. The Greener Stores in China are among the 3,500 around the world designed to meet specific standards across environmental impact areas.
At one store, partners presented him with an apron they’d designed for him to commemorate his visit, which included a drawing of him.
Listening and learning at the Starbucks Support Center in Shanghai
At the Starbucks Support Center in Shanghai, Narasimhan met with partners to ask questions, listen, learn and immerse more deeply into the China business. He visited each team, from coffee and marketing to R&D to store development, technology, finance, human resources and more to see how cross functional collaboration comes to life in China.
He said that one of the most important things he’s learned in life is that “you have to be humble. You've got to be humble about the fact that you don't know everything. You have to be able to ask questions, you’ve got to be yourself. But the real thing here is you've just got to continuously learn.”
Meeting customers where they are at
Starbucks commitment to connection isn’t limited to inside the stores. In China, Starbucks offers an innovative new curbside pickup service (top photo) delivery (second row, left), and a range of packaged coffee and ready-to-drink beverages at grocery stores (second row, right) to meet customers wherever they are at.
Even just a moment is an opportunity, Narasimhan said. “You see it in their eyes, when you hand the cup off to them, you know, we are in the business of human connection. So, when you hand that cup over, and you say their name ... what you realize is you've made a connection, you have made a change, you have uplifted their every day.”
Narasimhan also visited the China Coffee Innovation Park, which will open this fall in in Kunshan, about an hour from Shanghai. Starbucks has invested more than $150 million to construct the innovation park, Starbucks largest manufacturing investment outside of the U.S. and its first in Asia. It will feature one of the first sustainable roasting plants in Starbucks global network, smart supply chain operations enabled by state-of-the-art technologies, and an immersive Experience Center that will showcase sustainable practices across the “Bean to Cup” coffee journey to all visitors.
Leaning into the joy of human connection
“We need to have some fun, because this is a fun business,” said Narasimhan, shown with Wong, during a visit to a Starbucks Reserve® store in Shanghai (top photo). “... We believe in joy, we believe in belonging, we believe in care.”
Narasimhan told partners that sharing ourselves and our stories connects us as people. “It's your stories that enliven the fabric that make up this company -- that enlivens the green apron that all of us wear. At the end of the day, with every cup, with every conversation, with every community, what you can do is you can nurture the limitless possibilities of human connection.”