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A coffee industry giant talks hardware

At the Ace Hardware show, Howard Schultz of Starbucks fame held court.

BY Ken Clark

ORLANDO — Ace Hardware CEO John Venhuizen welcomed the Starbucks visionary Howard Schultz to the stage here at the Ace Hardware Convention general session and invited the potential presidential candidate to enjoy a cup of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee.

Venhuizen was joking. But the Ace CEO led a question-and-answer session with Schultz that offered some serious ideas and advice on small business, retail success and Ace Hardware stores.

Schultz, the chairman emeritus of Starbucks, helped make the brand a household name. He served as CEO of the company from 1986 to 2000, and again from 2008 to 2017. Earlier this year, the high-profile businessman and entrepreneur announced he was exploring a presidential bid.

The wide-ranging interview did not include an official campaign announcement, but it did produce some laughs, some heartfelt comments, and some spontaneous applause — especially when Schultz described his admiration for Ace and the country’s independent hardware stores.

Here are some of Schultz’s highlight quotes from the interview:

On Starbucks:
Starbucks has no proprietary technology.  What is it we have? As trite as it might sound, it’s our people. Everything we try to do is experiential — It’s the relationship that our people have with our customers.  We have to exceed the expectations of our people, so they can exceed the expectations of our customers.

On empty chairs and decision making:
We have quarterly meetings and weekly management meetings. In every meeting, there are two empty chairs. One chair represents one of our customers and the other chair is for one of our people. And that reminds us to ask the question: ‘Is this decision going to make our people and our customers proud?’ Not every business decision is an economic one. Of course you have to make payroll, you have to be profitable. But if you can take the long view and do the right things, the customer today wants to support a company whose values are compatible with their own.”

On Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo:
Tom Izzo was asked what kind of kids he tries to recruit. He said ‘There are three kinds of kids. Kids who like it, kids who love it, and kids who live it. We recruit kids who live it.’ This can’t be a casual thing. You have to take this so personally every single day to make a difference in your store, and you have to live it. When you see something as a leader in your store, and you see a behavior inconsistent with the heritage and tradition to Ace, and you see that go on — if you let that go, you are part of the problem.  Every single day you have to live it.

On politics:
The two-party system is broken, and our leaders are not doing what they should be doing. I think we’re better than this.

On failing:
We’re going to fail. If you’re not failing, I don’t think you’re pushing hard enough.

On creating a “third place” between home and work:
The ‘third place’ is this environment between home and work, and a safe place to interact with other people. People are longing for human experiences, longing for people they trust. There is an epidemic of loneliness in America. We bring people together.

On retail and mediocrity:
I would say: when I go into retail stores across the country — and I’m constantly doing that as a merchant — I would say, by and large, America has been swept away by mediocrity. Are we ensuring that the customer is going to be completely blown away? “I just went to an Ace Hardware store, and you won’t believe what happened to me?” That should be not only the goal, but the standard experience. The difference between that and ordinary is huge.

On international expansion:
We went to Japan as a first international market. The truth is, we went to Japan because it was the only direct flight from Seattle. That’s how smart we were. But it worked out, because we loved it and we willed it.

On teamwork:
Business is a team sport. I can tell you there were some drag out battles over a number of strategic decisions that we had to go through. And those battles make us better.

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