There's a lot of speculation as to why that's the case. Some say Schultz is gearing up for a career in politics. (Officially, Schultz will stay with the company, shifting focus to Starbucks's premium brand, Starbucks Reserve, along with the company's social initiatives.) Others feel that it's time, with Starbucks holding a secure spot as the coffee king of the world.
But if you love Starbucks, you should be worried. Doesn't anyone remember the last time this happened?
Back in 2000, Schultz stepped down as CEO as Starbucks. The chain was already one of the world's most recognizable brands at the time--and steadily growing.
After some time passed, things began to go downhill. The company found itself in the midst of a struggling global economy. It had committed a series of strategic mistakes, which included woefully underestimating the competition.
In 2008, Schultz, who couldn't stand to see the brand he created self-destruct, resumed the post--and proceeded to lead one of the most stunning business turnarounds in history.
Today, Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse in the world. The company operates in more than 23,000 locations (on every continent), employs 238,000 people, and is ranked No. 146 on the Global Fortune 500.
The Schultz factor.
Schultz wasn't at the controls during Starbucks's nosedive, but he benefited greatly from the experience.
Here's an excerpt from the former CEO's 2010 interview with HBR:
The past two years have been transformational for the company and, candidly, for me personally. When I returned, in January 2008, things were actually worse than I'd thought. The decisions we had to make were very difficult, but first there had to be a time when we stood up in front of the entire company as leaders and made almost a confession--that the leadership had failed the 180,000 Starbucks people and their families.
And even though I wasn't the CEO, I had been around as chairman; I should have known more. I am responsible. We had to admit to ourselves and to the people of this company that we owned the mistakes that were made.
Schultz had always demonstrated great business acumen, but the challenge of bringing Starbucks back taught a unique set of lessons. It was humbling and character building.
"Success is not sustainable if it is defined by how big you become or by growth for growth's sake," said Schultz, in a moment of self-reflection. "Success is very shallow if it doesn't have emotional meaning."
It's this belief that gave Schultz license to do things no other company leader would have considered. Things like closing every store for three-and-a-half hours to retrain employees. Or taking 10,000 store managers to New Orleans for a conference that kicked off with community service, to remind them of the "character and values" of the company.
In stark contrast, Schultz's replacement, Kevin Johnson, has been with the company for only a year. (Schultz persuaded Johnson to come out of retirement to serve as president and COO of the company in early 2015.) Johnson has led some impressive initiatives, including a digital and mobile strategy that has been praised as one of the best in business. And he reportedly went on a grassroots "listening tour" last year, in which he spent time with store managers and employees.
Johnson's technology background, first as right-hand-man to (former) Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, and later as chief executive of Juniper Networks, was what Starbucks needed--from its chief operating officer. But it's difficult to imagine a tech guy at the helm of a company like Starbucks, a company whose success was achieved on the back of its brand.
Howard Schultz may not have built the Starbucks brand single-handedly, but no one had more influence on the company he did.
Of course, the man isn't perfect. His "race together" campaign, which involved baristas writing those words on cups in an effort to spark conversations about race relations, was naive at best, harmful and insulting at worst. And that's just one example of the often misguided attempts Schultz describes as "challenging the status quo about the role of a public company."
But despite all of the missteps, Howard Schultz projects one quality better than almost anyone:
We may not always agree with Schultz, but at least we know where he stands. When he writes an email to tens of thousands of employees, applauding their efforts and encouraging them to be nice to customers, he seems to mean it. And although "Race Together" was a horrible idea, at least he tried ... well, something.
Alas, the decision has been made. For those of us who love Starbucks, we'll just have to wait and see. Of course, there is one bright side to all of this...
If Starbucks goes downhill again, Schultz will surely step back in. Because, like he says:
"You have to be willing to fight for what you believe in."