By Julie Jargon
Howard Schultz is stepping down as chairman of Starbucks Corp., the international behemoth he built that transformed the way Americans drink coffee.
The move is likely to fuel speculation that the liberal-leaning Mr. Schultz is preparing to run for political office.
For most of the past three decades, Mr. Schultz was the public face of the company and a celebrity himself. By making Starbucks ubiquitous and creating what the company calls a "third place" between home and work, Mr. Schultz also helped change the way Americans socialize. The chain's white paper cups emblazoned with a green siren were once considered status symbols, as celebrities were photographed carrying them.
"It seems like yesterday that I first walked into the Pike Place store, stepped across the threshold, and was swept into a world of coffee and community. That moment began the journey of a lifetime," Mr. Schultz, 64 years old, wrote in a letter to employees on Monday, referring to the chain's first Seattle store. Today, Starbucks has more than 28,000 stores in 77 countries world-wide.
Mr. Schultz laid the groundwork for his eventual retirement in late 2016, when he stepped down as chief executive to lead an effort at the company to build high-end coffee shops aimed at refreshing its brand, which has been facing increasing competition from specialty roasters.
Over the years, Mr. Schultz's identity and that of Starbucks became synonymous. He created a company that wasn't just about selling coffee but also stood for his social ideals, which include paying workers -- whom he refers to as "partners" -- above minimum wage, providing health insurance for part-time employees and taking a stand on issues ranging from same-sex marriage to gun control.
In recent months, Starbucks has been at the center of a debate about race relations after a Philadelphia store manager called the police on two black men who didn't purchase anything and allegedly refused to leave when asked. The company quickly denounced the manager's action and came out with a new policy stating that everyone is welcome in its stores. The move was praised by some customers and criticized by others.
Mr. Schultz's advocacy on social issues has prompted politicians, columnists and others to speculate about whether he might one day run for political office. Mr. Schultz plans to write a book about Starbucks's social-impact work and its efforts to redefine the role and responsibility of a public company, he told employees.
"I'll be thinking about a range of options for myself, from philanthropy to public service, but I'm a long way from knowing what the future holds, " he said in the letter.
Mr. Schultz, who will take the honorary title of chairman emeritus, will be succeeded by lead independent director Myron Ullman, former chairman and chief executive at J.C. Penney Co. Mr. Schultz's last day with the company is June 26, Starbucks said.
--Maria Armental contributed to this article.
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