It's Not About the Coffee, Says Former Starbucks Executive

After Howard Behar ordered coffee from Occidental's student-run Green Bean coffee lounge yesterday, he tidied up around its canisters of cream and sugar packets-a habit likely hardwired from working at Starbucks for more than 20 years.


But Behar is no barista. As founding president of Starbucks International and former president of Starbucks North America, he helped transform Starbucks from a regional coffee purveyor with 28 stores to the world's most successful coffee chain. Yesterday, he gave a lunchtime lecture, "People Over Profits: Principles of Personal Leadership," based on a career that spans more than 50 years, all in consumer-oriented businesses in several industries.

In his introduction, College President Jonathan Veitch recalled visiting a coffeehouse in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and wondering how it would ever survive. "‘What could possibly be the business plan for this?'" he remembered thinking. "It's a good thing I became an academic and not a businessman."

Behar, who received an honorary degree from Occidental in 2005, said that from almost his first day at Starbucks, he saw that his job was not about selling coffee. It was about cultivating and helping Starbucks partners (as employees of the Seattle-based company are called) tap into their creativity and develop professionally. His leadership role was critical in helping Starbucks keep its unique culture while growing exponentially.

"The coffee had to be good, of course. But it's about the people," he said before a capacity audience of students, Starbucks employees and community members in Mosher lecture hall. "We think our identity is in the title on our business card. But it doesn't make a difference what you do. At the end of the day, everything you do is in service to another human being."

That thinking led the Starbucks executive team to offer healthcare insurance to its part-time employees years before most other companies did, pay a better-than-average hourly wage and provide stock options. "Maximization of profits is not the answer," Behar said. "Profits need to be spread across multiple constituencies."

At Starbucks, he initially helped expand the coffee chain across the United States as vice president of sales and operations. As president of Starbucks' global division, Behar helped establish the coffee culture in places as diverse as France, Russia and South Korea. He returned to head Starbucks North America as president and served as a company director until 2008. Today, Starbucks has more than 17,000 locations on five continents and serves not just coffee, but meals, desserts, coffee accessories and, in some locations, beer and wine.

He urged the crowd to draw up a strategic plan for their life and develop what he called a "BHAG," or a "big, hairy audacious goal." It's a goal, Behar explained, that is much bigger than you. For him, it was "to nurture and inspire the human spirit every day."

He elaborates on the people-centered approach to business in his 2007 book,It's Not About the Coffee: Leadership Lessons From a Life at Starbucks. In demand as a speaker on corporate and personal leadership, Behar now serves on several for-profit and nonprofit boards, including Anna's Linens, EZ Grill, Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership and the University of Washington Foundation. He also sponsors a joint educational initiative with the University of Washington School of Social Work and Foster School of Business.