Howard Schultz, the executive chairman of Starbucks, will step down at the end of the month, fueling speculation that he might run for political office.
Schultz, who transformed U.S. coffee culture and made his colossal chain synonymous with the beverage, told the New York Times that he had told the company’s board about his plan to retire a year ago.
Schultz stepped down as CEO of Starbucks last April, relinquishing the title to longtime board member Kevin Johnson. In his new role as executive chairman, Schultz was focused on the company’s push to develop a higher-end brand so it could compete with so-called “third wave” chains like Blue Bottle, as well as “experiential destinations” to draw in customers in a changing retail landscape. (For more on this, read “Howard Schultz Has Something Left to Prove” in the June 15, 2017 issue of Fortune magazine.)
But Schultz has always been political, and his decision to step down from his beloved Starbucks will only fuel questions about a presidential run. He told the Times, “For some time now, I have been deeply concerned about our country—the growing division at home and our standing in the world.” When asked directly if would run for president, he said, “One of the things I want to do in my next chapter is to figure out if there is a role I can play in giving back. I’m not exactly sure what that means yet.”
There was speculation that Schultz would run for office last election cycle, but he tamped down rumors with an op-ed that stated, “Despite the encouragement of others, I have no intention of entering the presidential fray.”
Schultz has never shied away from the types of political issues that most executives want to avoid: gun control, immigration, refugees, political gridlock, and marriage equality. The company was recently thrown into a round of controversy after two black men were arrested in one of its stores in Philadelphia while waiting for a friend.
This is not the first time that Schultz has said he is concerned with the country’s direction. In a leaked video from last year he told employees that U.S. president Donald Trump is “creating episodic chaos every single day.”
When I interviewed Schultz last year in his office adorned with photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, the House was scheduled to vote on the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Schultz asked a PR person twice in an hour whether the House had voted yet.
I asked him outright if he would run for office. “I don’t have any plans to do that,” Schultz told me. As I wrote at the time, that amounts to something less than a no. A politician couldn’t have said it better.