SEATTLE—Starbucks shareholders gathered for the first annual meeting without former Executive Chairman Howard Schultz, who stepped down last year and is now considering a run for president.
But there was no shortage of star power at this year's meeting—Brandi Carlile performed three numbers to a wildly appreciative crowd—and no shortage of controversy, with United Farm Workers activists protesting outside the meeting, while inside civil-rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate himself, pressed Starbucks to support the farmworkers who produce the dairy products the company uses for its lattes and other beverages.
Wednesday's meeting was also something of a solo debut for Schultz's successor Kevin Johnson, the company's president and CEO, who is attempting a massive overhaul of virtually every aspect of the Starbucks empire, from the design of its stores to the way it develops products.
Johnson, a former Microsoft executive, characterized the 48-year-old company's new initiatives as "boldly re-imagining our future."
But the overhaul is also widely seen as a tacit acknowledgment of the challenges facing the Seattle-based coffee company—from shifting consumer tastes to lagging technological innovation to the difficulty of making a ever-more-massive company grow like the small company it once was.
"This agenda acknowledges that we are growing off a very large base, with 30,000 stores around the world," Johnson told a crowd of shareholders and company employees who packed the WaMu Theater.
Still, insisted Patrick Grismer, the former chief financial officer at Hyatt who took the same role at Starbucks late last year, "We remain a growth company—we are not a mature business whose best days are behind us."
Shareholders had much to cheer about. Starbucks generated $24.7 billion in net revenue in fiscal year 2018, up 10 percent over the previous year. The all-important earnings-per-share grew by an impressive 17 percent, to $2.42. The company's share price, which had leveled off worryingly last year, finished the first quarter of 2019 up 22 percent from a year ago. By comparison, the S&P 500 rose only 4 percent during the same period.
The company also announced a special "accelerated share repurchase program" of $2 billion. That's part of Starbucks' commitment to spend $25 billion repurchasing its shares by 2020. Investors tend to like share "buybacks" because they can boost the price of a company's stock.
Shareholders interviewed during and after the meeting seemed pleased by the company's impressive gains in China (a new Starbucks store opens every 15 hours), which is widely seen as generating a steadily larger share of the company's future growth.