Alumni Spotlight - Howard Behar

Accomplishing his life's work

By Dana Chrysler
Everett Community College Alumni Outreach Specialist

EvCC alum Howard Behar is the former president of Starbucks Coffee Company North America and Starbucks Coffee International, retiring in 2008 after a 21-year career with the company. A native of the Seattle area, Howard initially served as vice president of sales and operations for Starbucks, growing the retail business from 28 stores to more than 400 stores by the time he was named president of Starbucks Coffee International in 1995. Under Howard's leadership, Starbucks opened its first location in Tokyo in 1996 and introduced the brand across Asia and the United Kingdom over the next three years. He was also a director of the company from 1996 to 2008.

Howard serves on several profit and nonprofit boards and is the author of the book, "It's Not About the Coffee: Lessons on Putting People First from a Life at Starbucks." A frequent speaker on the topics of organizational and personal leadership, Howard recently visited the EvCC campus to speak to a group of educational administrators from around the state. In this interview, he talks about the rewards and challenges of leading Starbucks, what motivates him, and the lessons he's learned.

Did you grow up in this area?

I was born and raised in Seattle and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1962.

How did you end up attending Everett Community College (EvCC)?

I didn't have the grades to go to the University of Washington, so I attended EvCC, along with several of my friends. At that time, it was more an extension of high school. I think I needed the community college; it matured me by exposing me to things I would have never been exposed to. At some level, I was directionless; at other levels, I wasn't. For example, I grew up in a really entrepreneurial family. I had direction to that and that's why I did well in accounting and business; anything that had to do with that. Anything that didn't, I didn't. [Smiling]

How was your family entrepreneurial?

Well, my dad had a small, mom-and-pop grocery store; my brother, a furniture store. So, I was interested in business, that's what I wanted to do, and that's where I saw myself. I don't ever remember my parents saying, “Hey, you have to get an education.” Neither one of my parents was educated. I don't think my dad even finished high school. He was an immigrant from Bulgaria who arrived in Seattle around 1911.

So, you didn't pursue anything in particular while you were at EvCC?

No. I didn't say, “I want to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer, or a fire chief.” I wasn't that directed. It was more, “Okay, the families are in business. I understand business, I like it.” I was a people person; it just fit.

Did you receive your associate degree from EvCC?

No, I didn't get the degree. I don't think I had enough credits.

Where did you go when you left EvCC?

I went to work. The first year at EvCC, I lived and went to school in Everett. My brother had opened a furniture store in Edmonds, so I went to school and worked part-time selling furniture for him. The second year, I lived in Edmonds, worked part-time, and went to school.

When you left EvCC, did that end your formal education?

It ended my formal education. I would not let either one of my kids do that -- they both have master's degrees and my wife has a PhD. It wasn't that I wasn't a good learner; I was. If I was interested, nothing could keep me from the information. I would find people, read books, do anything. I would not recommend cutting your education short to anyone . . . I was just lucky.

Maybe some hard work thrown in there helped, too.

Well, yeah, I worked hard. I internalized not going to school as, “I'd better work harder than the next guy; I'd better do everything that the other person won't do.” And I did that. Because I didn't have the tickets, I just felt that I wasn't going to get anywhere without working harder than someone else.

How long did you sell furniture?

I was 39 years old when I left the furniture business.

What motivated you during your career. Was it money or something else?

No, never money, never. I wanted to learn. When I was in the furniture business, I wanted to be the best there was in the furniture business, whatever that meant. I was motivated by the intrinsic value of just being better at what I did and being recognized for being good at what I do. That drove me. Money has never driven me.

Do you think your motivation to succeed came from your bringing up or a combination of your own temperament and external factors?

I think it's always a combination of things. Certainly, it was a combination of things for me. My parents were both incredibly hard workers. My dad would get up at 4 every morning, go get produce, take it to the store, clean the produce, and get the store ready to open. At that time, a mom-and-pop store opened at 8 a.m.. He'd work all day and, at 6 o'clock, he'd close the store, mop the floors, and was home by about 6:30 p.m. He'd eat dinner, sit down in a chair, and fall asleep. I watched him do that until I was about 12 or 13 years old. Then, during the summers, he'd take me to the store with him.

I watched my mom do the same thing. They were Depression-era people; they almost lost everything during the Depression. My mother didn't push me; I never pushed myself. Somewhere, in that journey, I got mad about that because her expectations were low. She used to say, “Howard, don't worry, not everybody can be.” Whatever my dream was: “Don't worry, not everybody can be.” And, there was a point in time where I got angry over that, I said, “I can.” I found the places that I could. I got better at those things; I became a student of myself and now, a student of others. That is what drove me.

I was a good merchant, good in sales, good at leading organizations, and I became better and better at leading organizations and leading teams. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I wasn't limited. Not having the education was an even bigger driver.

There's pain in me, that I didn't complete my education; I was capable, and I didn't. I just didn't know I was capable. It's funny: success begets success. And failures? I never let failures get me. I just kept pushing. Life takes many turns. Sometimes you turn right and it doesn't work; sometimes you turn left and it does.

I haven't talked to many people who have taken a direct line from college to career success. Most say that they kind of weaved their way through various circumstances to where they eventually landed.

Yeah, people want to look at success like relationships when you're young: You want to fall in love and you want everything to be perfect—no arguments, no problems, no nothing. It's not how you build a relationship, is it? It's the dance of life: two steps forward, one step back. Success is like that.

There are some people who are very directed from the beginning. They just know they want to be a doctor or a lawyer and they do it and they are successful at it. On the other hand, I've known people who wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer and they got there and they hated it.

There's no “path.” There's only your own path. The path has many roadblocks, and you don't even know sometimes what those roadblocks look like. You figure out how to get around them, over them, under them, if you can. Life is to be lived. Sometimes you live with the cards that you have dealt yourself and sometimes it's the cards that you have been dealt.

How did you go from being in the furniture business to working for Starbucks?

Well, the path to it was accidental. There was a middle piece there. I worked for a company called GranTree Furniture Rental, and I became vice president of GranTree Furniture Rental. No degree, public company; it was incredible. In my wildest dreams, I never thought I would be there. That put me in a position to learn executive skills, to learn what it meant to manage in a larger organization. We were across the country, so I was developing these multi-unit skills. I was in my late 20s, early 30s at that time.

The president of that company took a group of us to a company called Thousand Trails, an outdoor recreation company with membership campgrounds -- it was like a timeshare for RV owners. So, I ran the operations of that. It was across the country, dealing with all sorts of people, sales organization, everything.

At one point, Thousand Trails got in trouble and the president was fired. I wrote a letter to the board and said, “I'd like a shot. I think I can turn it around.” I still have that letter. By that time, I was in my mid-30s, and I was starting to believe in myself. I didn't turn it around. We sold the company, but that experience was better than an MBA. It was incredible. That's when I really honed my skills. I learned what it took to operate a big business, I understood how the game worked, I learned to work with bankers, under pressure. I was working 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to make it go. My job was to get the business sold, and I got it sold. They asked me to stay and I stayed on, but I didn't like the people. Finally, they said, “Okay, you can go,” and they paid me for a year or two.

There I was, in my early 40s, and I was trying to figure out, “What am I going to do when I grow up?” I had worked for corporations and thought, “You know, I think I want to do my own business, maybe a small, furniture store.” So, I started looking for what was for sale.

Every day, I had to get out of the house. The worst thing for me was to stay home feeling sorry for myself or worrying. And I'd go to this little, tiny coffee store. I lived on Mercer Island at the time, and there was a Starbucks store in Bellevue. They had three or four little bar stools in the window, that was all the seating there was.

What year was this?

About 1987. I'd go there every day. I'd take my newspapers and notebook and drink a couple of capuccinos. I would start writing about what I wanted to do and my goals in life and asked: "How do I reset myself?" I'd always been goal driven. I remember making some notes: “This [Starbucks] is an interesting company.” I'd been a customer for 17 years, just buying coffee by the pound, but never went in there to buy a cup of coffee.

I made some notes; I still have them at home: “Boy, this place better never get slick, but it's interesting.” Beer was starting to take off, wine was starting to take off, coffee was taking off. And I thought, “You know, this market is going to grow.” So, I tried to buy a few companies in the specialty food industry; two of them I couldn't get done and one I almost got done.

During that process, I met this young guy named Howard Schultz. Howard was out looking for someone to run sales and operations for Starbucks, which was a tiny company at that time. When I first talked to him, he had about 15 stores. He had this list of things he wanted in the person he hired for sales and operations, and I didn't fit anything on the list. He wanted a college degree, food service experience -- there were 10 items. The only thing that I probably fit on the list was that I could breathe! [Laughing]

So, we shook hands and said good-bye. About a year later, I still hadn't found anything to buy. I made this pitch to my brother-in-law to look at this one business and he said, “Well, there's somebody I want to go talk to about this, somebody that has experience." And it was a guy named Jack Rogers; he was one of the original investors in Starbucks with Howard. So, we went to visit Jack in the Starbucks building. Jack looked at me and said, “We need somebody like you right here at Starbucks.”

I said, “You're kidding me. I've had that conversation.” He said, “No, no, things have changed.” I think that my brother-in-law breathed a sigh of relief that he wouldn't have to loan me any money. [Smiling]

And that's how it happened. Howard and I met again and I said, “Okay, let me go to work for a week in the company, let's just see. You take a look at me and see how I fit in and I'll take a look at you.”

So, I did. And I fell in love.

What happened that week?

The people were wonderful, that was what I was about. The business had a soul. It was about serving human beings. And I love coffee. From the day that I started there, the place fit me like a glove. I never looked back. Now, that doesn't mean we didn't have trouble, it didn't mean that every day was joyous, it didn't mean that I didn't argue with Howard Schultz. I did, about lots of things. But, it was just a perfect fit for me.

Way back in the beginning, what was the vision for Starbucks? Did you know that it would become as big as it is today?

Nah, we didn't know. We just didn't know. Howard and I used to argue. He was from New York and wanted to go home one day and open 100 stores in Manhattan. I said, “It's never going to happen.” At that time, we were west of the Mississippi and maybe had 100 stores. Howard wanted it to be big.

There were three people who were responsible for the company overall: myself, Howard Schultz and Orin Smith — people called us “H2O.” I think Orin and I weren't that hungry. Howard was hungry. Once I got the scent, once I figured out what it could be, then I was really good at making that happen. Then I became the one that drove the international. I worked at it for two years, trying to get the board to go, and it was really early.

That seems very realistic. If you had said something different, it would have sounded more like a movie script.

We made lots of mistakes along the way. As we went, we learned, and we got better at what we did. It just kept growing.

The Starbucks mission statement says: "Our mission is to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time." Was that philosophy already inherent in the company when you started?

No.

How was that philosophy infused into the company?

That was my driver. I knew it and I felt it. That was me, that was who I was. It's that old deal: the concept of customers versus human beings. When you think of people as customers, you think of them in a sense that they have a dollar in their pocket, and, if you just do something that makes them happy, they're going to give you that dollar. When you're of service to human beings, it's not about that dollar, it's about serving other human beings.

How do you duplicate that philosophy within a company?

Well, like attracts like after awhile. At the beginning, it wasn't so easy, but what happens is, you catch people doing things right. When you are constantly recognizing, rewarding, complimenting, reinforcing behaviors that you want, people find their way. You can't criticize your way into changing behaviors of people. It doesn't work. You can coach, but you can't do it the other way and have it stick. At the end of the day, they have to want it. I so believed that we were not in the coffee business serving people, but we were in the people business serving coffee; I was just relentless.

What were some of the challenges?

The biggest issue was that we were growing so fast, we would just blow by people that, at one time, had been really good in their work and then, all of a sudden, we were going so fast that they just fell behind and we couldn't stop to catch them up. So, we lost a lot of people, we had to move people around, we had to demote some people and give them time. We did a lot of each. That's tough, because there were people who started when there were 10 or 15 stores, but by time we were starting to open 100 a year, they just could not do it. They just couldn't get there.

Everything that I pretty much regret revolves around people: somebody that I was too quick to let go or didn't help them enough or somebody that I wasn't quick enough to let go and he or she hurt other people. Everything revolves around people.

I made business mistakes and chose the wrong partners and wrong products and stuff like that, but that part I don't count—I've been doing that my whole life. [Smiling] That's just part of the game. But, the people stuff, when you hurt another human being, and you can hurt them not just by firing them, but by putting them in positions where they can't survive and they blow up and they feel worse about themselves . . .

I think that, if you're going to lead an organization, people are your day job and the business or the organization, so to speak, is your night job. My job was about people, and the bigger the organization got, the more I had to focus only on that.

During your career at Starbucks, what was most rewarding to you?

Number one: watching a group of people come together and build a dream and being part of that -- recognizing that I didn't really have that much to do with it. I turned around one day and there were 7,000 store managers in Key Arena. I looked up and said to myself, “How the hell did that happen?” It was people that made it their own dream, they attached to it.

The second thing is that, when I had the opportunity to take Starbucks outside of North America, my goal was not to sell more cups of coffee. It wasn't the driving force. I wanted to use Starbucks as a bridge among people. I felt that Starbucks coffee could be a bridge for all people.

When and where did Starbucks first expand outside of North America?

The first store we opened outside North America was in the Ginza shopping district of Tokyo, Japan, on Aug. 4, 1996. I walked into that store and watched people sitting there drinking a latte and talking, just like we do in Seattle. [Smiling]

When we opened in Kuwait City, I walked into that gorgeous store, and there were three or four women sitting around a table in full burqas, head to toe. Here were these Starbucks cups on the table and they were drinking them and talking as fast as they could. I looked at that and thought, “We've built a bridge.”

That must have been satisfying.

A lot of people work hard in this world; there are many people who are a lot smarter than I am that never got the opportunity to do that. I was prepared for it. I understood that, but I didn't know it was ever going to turn out the way it did.

Are you still involved with Starbucks?

No, I retired four years ago after 21 years with Starbucks.

From this vantage point in your life, what do you care about the most?

Well, when I retired from Starbucks, it was very difficult. I'd been working for almost 50 years. All of a sudden, I wasn't at that job, and there was no feedback. I couldn't find myself.

We have a house in Palm Springs, and one day, I was laying on the sofa, trying to read a book. I'd been kind of mildly depressed. I was laying there thinking, “God, is my life worth it?” I was kind of removed from myself, and some words came into my head: “Howard, your life's work is still your life's work.” I heard it and then it repeated to me again: “Your life's work is still your life's work.” I don't know where it came from. I talked to myself -- because I do that anyway -- and then I started repeating it to myself: "My life's work is still my life's work."

So, my life's work is still my life's work — it's not a career, right? It's bigger than a career. I wish I would have recognized that earlier: I wasn't trying to manage a career, it was my life's work. That's how I approached it, even in my work. I just didn't have the words; the words came later.

I want to change how organizations are lead. I want to see young people grow. I want to see people being able to put on their own hat and wear it throughout their whole life — their values are their values and they find places to contribute their skills and knowledge that allow them to be themselves. As a matter of fact, it not only allows it, it demands that they be themselves and salutes who they are, even though they may be different than the next guy. That's what I'm trying to do.