Howard Schultz wants to rebrand the B-word. The former Starbucks CEO says billionaires should be called “people of means” or “people of wealth”.
Until now, and to all outward appearances, billionaire has been the most common and factual term for someone who has one thousand million dollars (one followed by nine noughts) or more. Schultz’s attempt to imprison the English tongue has been mocked — mercilessly. He’s also considering a 2020 run as an independent candidate in the US presidential race, for which he has received an equally remarkable public spanking. No one wants see another rich, white businessman who lacks government experience running the US — particularly one who distorts words at his fancy.
To be sure, Schultz built an $84-billion empire and is a game-changing entrepreneur. We drink better coffee because of him. Instead of being the death of independents, his ubiquitous chain sparked the “third wave” of coffee — a global movement focusing on quality and provenance over mass-produced piss. When next you find yourself seduced by a single-origin pour-over served by a bearded Viking at your local artisanal roastery, thank Schultz.
His incipient presidential campaign, however, has seen him emerge as a divisive figure, not least because wealth tax has surfaced as an early dividing line in the race for office. The Democrats feel they’ve watched this movie before.
Third-party and independent candidates tend to take votes away from one major party candidate and tip the balance towards the other. George HW Bush lost to Bill Clinton in 1992 after potential votes were siphoned away by Dallas billionaire Ross Perot.
In more recent memory, Hillary Clinton lost the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, each by less than a percentage point, thanks to third-party votes in the 2016 election.
Schultz would essentially be the 2020 spoiler version — his independent bid could split the Democratic vote and lead to President Donald Trump’s re-election.
It would be fair to say that, in mounting a successful challenge for the White House, the aforementioned buffoon-in-chief may have actually emboldened business leaders to advance their own campaigns.
For the most part, the history of billionaire business leaders holding office has been flawed, vulnerable, and unnecessary.
Consider, for example, this motley crew: Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, the Czech Republic’s Andrej Babiš, and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra.
Take your pick from their assemblage of infamy: European Union subsidy fraud, “bunga bunga” sex parties, perjury, a compromising situation with a Moroccan teenage runaway turned belly dancer, and, lastly, that good ol’ classic — corruption.
Scandal aside, governments don’t run like businesses. Both serve fundamentally different purposes.
Bottom-line focus and an “on-time and underbudget” philosophy are more suited for a quarter than for an administration. Trump’s showdown with Congress over funding for the proposed wall along the US’s southern border with Mexico and the partial government shutdown show that CEO-ish skills, like ruthless efficiency, don’t cut it in the Oval Office.
Running a government requires equal parts compromise, consensus, and equanimity because you are downwardly accountable and limited by a constitution. As a CEO, sharing power is rare, doesn’t last long, and almost always ends badly. It’s said that at the end of one of his less satisfying days as Potus, Harry S Truman, who served from 1945 to 1953, gazed into his bourbon glass and growled to his friends: “They talk about the power of the president. How I can just push a button to get things done? Why, I spend most of my time kissing somebody’s ass.”
It’s too early to know what Schultz stands for or who his constituency is. Ironically, what he has said is that he’s just trying “to walk in the shoes of the American people”.
And nobody’s buying that.
It could be because he has an estimated net worth of $3.5-billion, or that he still owns more than 37.7-million shares — or about 3% — of the Starbucks stock and received a cool $30.1-million in total compensation from the company last year.
Were we forced to play the semantics game and avoid the term “billionaire”, as Schultz suggests, the most natural options include: Uncle Moneybag$$$, butler-adjacent, cash vampires, or fiscally tinged.
Responding to critics of his personal fortune, Schultz had this to say: “I’m self-made. I grew up in the projects in Brooklyn, New York. I thought that was the American Dream, the aspiration of America.”
To inspire hope and change, those great tenets of any presidential wannabe, Schultz shouldn’t think billionaire is a dirty word. He should stick to his American-Dream narrative, and in so doing resonate with the average voter.
There’s even a slogan he could borrow. In the immortal words of Bruno Mars: “I wanna be a billionaire so freakin’ bad.”
• Moorad is the Financial Mail’s money editor and also the Shoptalk columnist.
- From the March edition of Wanted 2019.