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Posted: April 03, 2009

Before Starbucks was big

Former coffee giant exec to talk at Business Marketing Association breakfast

Dan Ray

Twenty years ago, a businessman named Howard Behar made the move to Starbucks – long before it was a household name – because he saw it as a great way to avoid corporate life. “I was in my mid-40s and still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life,” Behar said. “I just wanted to be close to people, and I wanted a business that had a soul to it.”

Behar found a young Starbucks without the taint of a sweeping corporate strategy or social dynamic. It was a place where he could impress his own personal values and approaches to success without interference, he said.

Of course, Starbucks wasn’t the corporate juggernaut it is today, grossing a whopping $5.7 billion in 2009, with stores everywhere from Gary, Ind., to Tokyo. In 1989, Starbucks was a moderately successful chain of coffee shops in the Western U.S., with about 28 stores. But by the time Behar left the corporation – he officially retired from its board of directors last month – that number had swelled to more than 12,000 locations worldwide.

On Wednesday, Behar, the former president of Starbucks Coffee International and author of, "It's Not About the Coffee: Leadership and Principles from a Life at Starbucks," will speak at a breakfast hosted by the Colorado branch of the Business Marketing Association. Click here to register for the event.

For Behar, it hadn’t been the profit-driven nature of the corporate world or the scope of big business that turned him off to corporate America; it was the culture, he said. But his values, by corporate standards, are somewhat unique.

On leadership

He believes in leadership, he said, but probably not the sort of leadership most people think of. “We usually think about leading others or being led by others,” Behar said. “But it’s about leading ourselves.”

In “It’s Not About the Coffee," Behar discusses his philosophy on life and business and outlines ten components of effective leadership and success, including the importance of knowing yourself and  putting relationships before individual success.

“For me, the book is about life and how to live it,” he said. “I don’t think this is about business.”

You need to know what your goals, dreams and core values are and how they are prioritized, Behar said. It’s not as simple as just briefly pondering these personal issues, you should write them down and make some tough decisions, he said.

“It’s figuring out what matters to you and then what you want to accomplish in your life,” he said. “We all have a kind of board of directors sitting on our shoulder. But which members do we listen to?”

According to Behar, people often make choices without consciously remaining true to their inner beliefs about what's right and wrong. Resisting this tendency is particularly important in the business world, he said, because businesses take on the character of the culture that created them.

“Corporations are not good or bad. It’s the people and the values of the people and the actions they take,” Behar said.

Inspiring integrity

At Starbucks, Behar said he found a place where he could encourage the sort of integrity that he strove for personally. As the business grew, he became adept at inspiring others to view business through his same ethical lens. Behar said he let those who were driven purely by profit know they were in the wrong place.

“There’s no gap between who you are as a human being and what you do at work,” he said. “You do what you want to do, and you try to make your material needs fit into it.” If one of your goals is to make money, that’s great, he said. But a businessperson should never let that goal trump all else. “I’m a capitalist pig,” he said. “I love making money, but you need to meet your values first.”

Click here for more information about “Breakfast with the Boss: Howard Behar,” and to register for the event.

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Dan Ray is a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 

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