At the Starbucks annual meeting on March 20, CEO Howard Schultz told a shareholder named Tom Strobhar to sell his stock if he disagreed with the company’s embrace of gay marriage.
Shareholders do have this prerogative. That is the beauty of securities markets. But the issue is not so simple. Institutional investors now own the majority of shares of publicly-held companies traded on U.S. exchanges. Many people own stock through mutual and pension funds, overseen by professional managers. As a practical matter, lots of Starbucks shareholders do not have the opportunity to easily sell their stock.
But there is a larger issue. Why is one of the world’s biggest and most widely admired companies taking sides on such a controversial issue? If Schultz can tell shareholders who disagree with him to take a hike, doesn’t this necessarily extend to customers, partners and employees? After all, these relationships are voluntary, too.
I will take Schultz up on his invitation. OK, Howard, I’ve had my last cup of Starbucks coffee.
Homosexual marriage is not just another public policy issue. It reaches deeply into the realms of personal morality and religion. As an individual, Schultz is entitled to his views. It is a free country. But as a corporate executive, does he really have the right to obligate everyone else at the company to his beliefs?
If Starbucks as a company now formally supports gay marriage and is committing corporate resources to the fight, does this not create a dilemma for many employees? Presumably, the mission of every employee is to sell more coffee and build the company. So every employee is forced to support gay marriage every day they go to work.
Does this mean that Catholics, for instance, should not in good conscience work at Starbucks? Should each Starbucks now put a sign in the window that reads, “Baristas Needed, No Catholics Need Apply.”? At the very least, Schultz is creating a hostile work environment for employees who do not share his views.
At the annual meeting, Schultz pointed out that Starbucks has 200,000 employees and said that Starbucks supports gay marriage in order to “embrace diversity.” Gay marriage has nothing to do with “diversity,” workplace conditions or employment discrimination. Because Starbucks are ubiquitous, diversity is a byproduct of the vastness. Everyone loves Starbucks and that is why it is spreading across the world.
It is also why Schultz is playing with fire. Good quarterly earnings figures can be fleeting. Consumer hostility can last a lot longer. In my case, it will be forever.
Last year when a Chick-Fil-A executive made comments supportive of traditional marriage, big city political figures to threatened to block franchises from opening in their cities. (Unlike Starbucks, Chick-Fil-A is privately held.)
In response, a Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day was organized through talk shows, the internet and word of mouth. Underplayed or ignored in advance by the media, the response was still overwhelming. There are five Chick-Fil-A outlets within ten miles of my house. All were jammed, a phenomenon duplicated in every corner of the country where Chick-Fil-A operates. Is Schultz trying to wake a sleeping giant?
It’s no secret that Schultz politics are liberal. And little hints of political correctness can be found in each Starbucks. I never really cared because I liked the coffee and I knew that at heart Schultz was a capitalist, and one of the most successful in history at that. There’s a lot to admire.
But now he’s urged me to take a hike. I try to avoid places I’m not wanted. So long, Howard.