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Starbucks CEO is stepping down. Howard Schultz returning as interim boss

Starbucks President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson is pictured at the Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Seattle, Washington on March 20, 2019. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)
Starbucks President and Chief Executive Officer Kevin Johnson speaks at the Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Seattle, Washington on March 20, 2019. The company announced his departure just hours before the 2022 shareholders meeting.

Amid the great resignation, a big one.

Starbucks has announced that its president and CEO Kevin Johnson is retiring after 13 years with the company, five of them as CEO. He leaves April 4.

The announcement came just hours before the company's annual shareholder meeting. Howard Schultz, who led Starbucks for three decades and built the company from 11 stores and 100 employees to 28,000 stores worldwide, will return as interim CEO. He is taking on the position as a volunteer, the company said, with compensation of $1.

The Starbucks board thanked Johnson for his leadership, citing the challenges brought on by the pandemic, which it called "one of the most difficult periods in modern history."

After an initial plunge in the very early days of the pandemic, Starbucks shares quickly recovered and soared to a record high last summer. Even as restaurants struggled, coffee sales remained strong, in part thanks to Starbucks' drive-throughs. By spring of 2021, the company said U.S. sales had made a "full recovery."

But Starbucks has not been able to slow a grassroots unionization drive that took off in Buffalo, New York, last year. In December, two out of three stores voted to join Workers United, affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, becoming the first Starbucks stores in the U.S. to form unions. Since then, four more stores — one in Mesa, Arizona, and three others in the Buffalo area — have joined them, and more than 130 other locations have petitioned for union votes.

On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board issued a formal complaint against Starbucks, alleging the company took retaliatory actions against two Arizona employees who were part of the union campaign.

In a statement, Johnson, 61, indicated his departure was planned, noting he had signaled to the Starbucks board a year ago that he would consider retiring as the pandemic came to an end.

"I feel this is a natural bookend to my 13 years with the company," he said.

Schultz, who led Starbucks from 1987 until 2018, said in a statement he had not planned to return to Starbucks but knows the company is at a point where it must transform once again.

"Our success is not an entitlement," he said. "We must continue to earn the trust of our people and our customers every day." Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.