A delicious aroma of speculation is wafting across the Atlantic over whether Howard Schultz, the retiring chairman of Starbucks, will take on Donald Trump in a run for the US Presidency.
When we hear the word Starbucks in this country, we tend to think of how the purveyor of bucket-sized lattes got itself embroiled in a row over tax avoidance in 2012 – but Schultz, its 64-year-old founder, would make a fascinating anti-Trump candidate in 2020.
The Schultz view of the US economy, expressed both through his words and the way he has built his business, could not be more different from the tenets of Trumponomics. Where Trump is protectionist, nationalist and narrowly focused, Schultz is a liberal globalist who says he wants to serve up unity, compassion and love along with the flat whites. (I know. He seems to mean it, though.)
Howard Schultz, the retiring chairman of Starbucks would make a fascinating anti-Trump candidate in 2020
While Trump looks to wage a trade war with China, Schultz is opening stores there at a rate of one every 15 hours. Where the President wants to build walls, the Starbucks boss declares he wants to build bridges.
The idea of a leading businessman – or woman – running for Prime Minister in this country seems outlandish. The business ‘brand’ overall has been tarnished by executive greed and seemingly endless snafus in the vein of Carillion and TSB, so corporate bosses have scant appeal to the voters.
It’s rare for chief executives or chairmen to say anything remotely political for fear of upsetting someone, even when their bottom line could be at risk, let alone on principle or for the good of society.
They do things differently in America. A couple of years ago I spent several days at Starbucks’ HQ and went to the annual shareholder meeting at Seattle’s McCaw Hall, which was more like a rock concert than a typical stuffy British AGM, with dry, curling-up sandwiches and even drier speeches.
Alicia Keys belted out several numbers to the packed crowd – so many people had turned up that tents with video links had to be erected to accommodate the overspill – but it was Schultz who was the real star.
To the accompaniment of melancholy music, he stood in front of a giant screen with the words ‘Have we lost our way, America’ displayed over images of conflict, homeless people, border control and a gigantic photograph of the then Presidential candidate Donald Trump.
While Trump looks to wage a trade war with China, Schultz is opening stores there at a rate of one every 15 hours
To a standing ovation from his rapturous shareholders, Schultz told his audience how he himself has lived out the American Dream, rising from a poor upbringing in Brooklyn to be a corporate titan.
He shared his fears of how that dream was dying a death and urged investors to reclaim it: ‘Not with despair, but with possibility. Not with division, but with unity. Not with exclusion, but with inclusion. Not with fear but with compassion. Not with indifference, but with love.’
Again, hard to imagine that at the annual meeting of M&S, but for good measure, he took out a two-page advertisement in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal preaching hope and optimism.
Some of it sounds saccharine to British ears – when we hear claims that Starbucks is ‘not just selling coffee but creating communities’ it’s all a bit icky.
Yet in terms of a straight contest between businessmen, Schultz is already a hands-down winner. The Trump Organisation is a private company which has around 22,500 employees and turnover of $9.5 billion, whereas Starbucks is a huge worldwide empire with more than 350,000 staff, 28,000 outlets and revenues of $22.4 billion.
Trump himself has established that an entrepreneur, rather than a professional politician, can be President, and Schultz is credible as a progressive answer to him.
It’s an open question, though, whether the Starbucks man really wants to subject himself to the bruising that would come with a run for office. Arguably he has enjoyed more influence and more power to change the planet as the world’s top barista than he would in the White House, so why trade down? But The Howard versus The Donald: that’s a prospect to relish.
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