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7 Bright Ideas From Howard Behar

Former Starbucks president: Treat employees as people, not merely as ‘assets’

DALLAS -- Two words former Starbucks president Howard Behar uses a lot are “dignity” and “respect.” Those words are the cornerstones of the culture he helped to build for the now-behemoth of a company, which had only 28 stores when he began his 21-year career there. When he left, it had 15,000 locations worldwide that employed 250,000 people.

Former Starbucks president Howard Behar CRU 2016

Behar knew the coffee had to be good, he said, but Starbucks’ mission statement goes beyond the coffee. The company wants to “inspire and nurture the human spirit,” too.  

Over more than two decades, Behar absorbed—and passed along—a lot of wisdom about dignity, people and culture. In the opening general session of CSP’s Convenience Retailing University in Dallas, he discussed some of those lessons with Peter Romeo, director of digital content for Winsight’s foodservice group.

  • When you serve customers, your “antenna” has to be up. Sense what that person needs when they come in. Sure, they probably want a beverage, but not every customer wants to chat—sometimes she wants her grande dark roast coffee with cream, but without conversation.
  • “If you hear [about a company], ‘People are our greatest assets,’ run away fast,” he said. “People are not assets.” They make mistakes and are unpredictable, so you can’t treat them like machines—like assets. “We need to learn we have love and forgiveness in our hearts (for employees) no matter what happens.”
  • Mistakes are part of the process, with good sometimes coming out of the bad. For example, Starbucks launched a coffee-cola product in partnership with a big beverage company, and the product was “dead within a month,” Behar said. But the beverage’s creation led to the incredibly successful bottled Frappuccino product years later.
  • Find ways to complement your people by complimenting them vs. criticizing them, even for small things. “Put people up without putting them down,” he said.
  • If you have a quality product, price it that way. The company knew it offered great coffee, Behar said, and executives were sure that people would pay more for that quality. They were right.
  • No matter how great the product you offer is, it’s not going to succeed if you can’t get it to customers, Behar pointed out: “Distribution is critical.”
  • And finally, “Be you—whatever that is,” Behar said. For example, Starbucks knows it’s never going to be “fine dining,” he said, but it has been successful with its packaged sandwiches, to the tune of the products now being 20% of the company’s business.

Follow CRU 2016 at #convenienceretailing.

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