As Starbucks continues to invest more and more in new technology, it comes as little surprise that the company picked Kevin Johnson to be its new leader.
The Seattle-based coffee giant on Thursday named Johnson as its new CEO, effective April 3 of next year. Johnson, who joined the board in 2009 and became Starbucks’ COO in 2015, will replace current CEO Howard Schultz, the longtime Starbucks exec who will remain at the company and serve as chairman.
Johnson has more than three decades of experience working at tech companies like IBM, Juniper Networks (he was CEO from 2008 to 2013), and Microsoft, where he led worldwide sales for two years before running the Windows and Online Services division for three years.
His appointment as CEO at Starbucks signals the company’s continued focus on utilizing new technology at its stores around the world. While Johnson was COO, the company rolled out a handful of new tech-powered initiatives like mobile ordering and delivery, while bringing its app and rewards program to China. He’s also familiar with the company, having been a board member for the past seven years.
Former colleagues tell GeekWire that Johnson is well-equipped to lead Starbucks, particularly as the $84 billion global coffee corporation prioritizes new technology opportunities at more than 25,000 stores in 75 countries.
“I have had the opportunity to see Kevin as a leader at both Microsoft and Juniper Networks,” said ex-Microsoft manager Sheila Gulati. “He is incredibly talented as a technology executive, but also as a leader of people. Starbucks has already distinguished itself by using technology in unique and innovative ways, and I have full confidence that this will accelerate with Kevin at the helm.”
Gulati, who just raised $295 million for a new Seattle-based venture fund, called Johnson a mission-driven leader who “provides a great balance of guidance and autonomy, thus great people love working for him.”
She recalled when Johnson, while running worldwide sales at Microsoft, created a program that allowed anyone in the company’s subsidiaries around the world to submit an application for funding a project that they had passion around.
“I was working in India for Microsoft and I submitted a project directly to him to drive developer platform revenue,” Gulati recalled. “He accepted and funded the proposal and in the end we were able to generate 250 times the invested amount in multi-year revenue commitments for Microsoft. This wouldn’t have happened without a senior leader like Kevin creating a forum to directly engage with him in order to highlight special opportunities.”
Steven Sinofsky, another former colleague of Johnson who worked at Microsoft for 23 years and was president of the Windows Division from 2006 to 2012, also pointed to Johnson’s leadership and collaboration skills.
“He was an incredible supporter and leader during the transformation of the Windows organization,” Sinofsky told GeekWire. “Much of what we accomplished owes to the environment Kevin established and supported.”
Sinofsky said Johnson will be “an amazing asset” as CEO given his past experience.
“Starbucks is a platform as much as we think of the food products,” he noted. “From the early days of free WiFi to the current world class app, tech is central to the full experience. This makes Kevin an even more incredible leader for the future of Starbucks.”
Brian McAndrews, the former Pandora CEO who worked for Johnson after Microsoft acquired aQuantive for $6.3 billion in 2007, also pointed to Johnson’s experience in the tech world.
“I think the main benefit of Kevin’s technology experience is that he understands how to work in a rapidly changing environment where the threat of disruption is always just around the corner,” McAndrews said. “Starbucks has been innovative in so many ways over the years; it will need to continue to be so in a world where retail growth is particularly challenging.”
McAndrews, a board member at companies like GrubHub, The New York Times, and PicMonkey, added that Johnson is a “very thoughtful leader” who is good at developing a vision and then creating specific, accountable goals.
“He is a very good listener and doesn’t care where good ideas come from,” McAndrews said. “His sales background makes him particularly strong at providing motivation for his teams.”
McAndrews said he didn’t always agree with Johnson while he worked for him at Microsoft, but “I always felt I had his ear and he had my back.”
Ben Slivka, who worked at Microsoft from 1985 to 1999, also praised Johnson’s listening skills.
“In all my interactions with him during and after my time at Microsoft, he always impressed me as a smart, patient, thoughtful listener,” Slivka said.
On a conference call with media and analysts today, Schultz called Johnson a “wise and supportive resource for me personally, both during and following our company’s transformation.”
“For years he has provided invaluable insights into how we scale the company around the world and how to best integrate industry-leading, customer-facing technology into our customer experience and operations,” Schultz added.
Schultz credited Johnson for helping Starbucks set financial performance records for the past two years. He also said Johnson is a “true servant leader” and said his colleague has an “unparallelled understanding of the market dynamics and strategic choices that have driven Starbucks to become one of the world’s most recognized and respected companies and brands.”
Johnson, who graduated from New Mexico State University with a B.A. in Business Administration, was named to the National Security Telecommunication Advisory Committee in 2008 and served under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
He announced his retirement in 2013 after leaving Juniper, but then joined the executive team at Starbucks in January 2015.