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Starbucks legend Howard Behar shares life lessons

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STEVEN GRUZD

Behar was the drawcard for the Chevrah Kadisha’s 11th annual Jewish Entrepreneurs Insight fundraiser. After a welcome from Investec group CEO Stephen Koseff, a moving video about the impressive new Arcadia facilities for vulnerable Jewish children was shown. Sisters Kalsey and Paige Windsor shared personal stories about the love and support they received growing up in Arcadia.

Born in 1944 in Seattle, Washington, Behar was the son of a Sephardi Bulgarian father and an Ashkenazi Latvian mother. He learned the retail trade growing up in the many mom-and-pop stores of his extended family. He was not a star student. “I was good at beer,” he quipped. Behar spent many years in the furniture business.

Changing industries, he offered to work for small start-ups: Starbucks for free for a week, filling bags of coffee by hand, serving coffee in a store, and travelling with delivery trucks. “I fell in love with the business. It fitted me like a glove,” Behar said. When he joined Starbucks, it had 28 stores. When he left, it had 25 000.

Behar lives his life by “Six Ps”: purpose, passion, persistence, patience, performance and people. “Ultimately, we’ll be judged by what we do for others.”

Sprinkling his conversation with anecdotes like cinnamon on a latte, Behar related the story of the “two Jims” to illustrate Starbucks’ values. “Little Jim” was a store manager who revealed he was dying of Aids to Behar and CEO Howard Schultz in 1989, when very little was known about the disease.

Schultz did not hesitate to allow Jim to continue working on full pay, and covered his sizeable medical costs.

“Big Jim” was a jovial elderly customer who visited his local Starbucks every afternoon. When staff attended his funeral after he died peacefully, they saw three big tables displaying every single paper Starbucks coffee cup he had ever received, each with a personal message written by the baristas. “Big things count, and little things count,” Behar said.

Searching for a new challenge, Behar took charge of growing Starbucks internationally, starting with a store in Tokyo in 1996. Today there are over 12 000 outside of North America. He predicts China alone will have 25 000 stores. Israel remains the only country where Starbucks has closed down.

Behar expressed the value of listening to employees. He told the tale of how Dina, a cleaner, persisted with an idea until management eventually agreed to sell the Frappaccino. It now earns Starbucks $4bn.

The audience filled in Starbucks-branded pledge cards, and almost R1,1m was raised towards Arcadia’s running costs. Behar was “blown away” by the Arcadia development and he and his wife Lynn pledged $5 000. He will fly the head of Seattle’s Jewish Family Services to Johannesburg to see it, “because our dream is too small”.

Finally, he said, the Jewish community in South Africa can get the country to greatness. “Just look at how you have survived. You can do it!”

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