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Starbucks' Howard Schultz and Other High-Profile CEOs Who Left Their Companies

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Executive Decisions

Some of the most powerful CEOs in the world are people you may have never heard of, including Laxman Narasimhan, who was just tapped to lead Starbucks. Others, such as Howard Schultz, who bought the company in 1987 and is currently serving as interim CEO, are household names synonymous with the companies they built. Either way, when the guard changes at a major corporation — sometimes because a public misstep sends its value tumbling — the world takes notice.


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Howard Schultz
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Howard Schultz | Starbucks

When Howard Schultz joined Starbucks in 1982, the chain had only four stores. He bought the company in 1987 and grew it into one of the world's most iconic brands — a household name with tens of thousands of locations worldwide. He stepped down in late 2016 but has been serving as interim CEO since Kevin Johnson left the post in early 2022. Now Schultz will be stepping aside once again: Starbucks announced that Laxman Narasimhan, who was most recently CEO of the multinational consumer goods company Reckitt, will assume the role in April 2023.


Related: Things You Didn't Know About Starbucks

Close up of card payment being made between customer and bartender in cafe
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Dan Price | Gravity Payments

Dan Price co-founded Gravity Payments 18 years ago when he was a 19-year-old student. Price made headlines in 2015 for cutting his salary to $70,000, so that all employees would be able to earn at least that much, too. Price recently stepped down from his role as chief executive of the payment-processing company because of a different type of public attention. Earlier this year, the Seattle-based CEO was charged with misdemeanor assault against a woman and reckless driving. Allegations that Price abused his ex-wife also resurfaced, as did the news that his own brother sued Price in 2015 after alleging he was overpaying himself. Price released a statement on Twitter regarding his resignation, saying, "My No. 1 priority is for our employees to work for the best company in the world, but my presence has become a distraction here. I also need to step aside from these duties to focus full time on fighting false accusations made against me. I'm not going anywhere."


Related: Companies' Most Cringeworthy PR Fails

John Foley
John Foley by TechCrunch (CC BY)

John Foley | Peloton

It was John Foley who pitched the idea of an interactive exercise bike in 2011, but stepped down as CEO of Peloton earlier this year. It's been a tumultuous time for the on-demand exercise company: Business rose dramatically at the start of the pandemic, but it has waned since vaccines came out and gyms reopened. Thanks to the downturn, the company is laying off 2,800 employees, including 20% of its corporate workforce. Wall Street analysts view Foley's resignation as a pivotal moment that makes it more likely that the company might be sold in the future. Amazon, Apple, and Nike are among the big names that have been floated as potential buyers.


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Steve Easterbrook
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Steve Easterbrook | McDonald's

Steve Easterbrook was fired as CEO of McDonald's in 2019, but new details came out recently about what led to the shakeup, thanks to a lawsuit settlement. At the time of his departure, Easterbrook had admitted to having a consensual sexual relationship with an employee, and the board determined he violated company policy. But according to a lawsuit filed by McDonald's against Easterbrook, he lied to the company about the extent of his relationships with employees, and proof of many more relationships has been found. McDonald's settled the lawsuit, forcing Easterbrook to pay back more than $100 million, the amount of his severance package.

Jack Dorsey testifying before Senate
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Jack Dorsey | Twitter

Dorsey said he was leaving Twitter in November, with the company's chief technology officer, Parag Agrawal, taking over immediately. It was Dorsey's second time leaving the social-media giant after he was forced out in 2008 and returned in 2015 after Dick Costolo resigned. Dorsey's return wasn't without hiccups, either. Investment firm Elliott Management requested that he step down in 2020, as he was acting as CEO for both Twitter and Square, and there was concern he wouldn't focus enough attention on Twitter. A deal, including a $2 billion stock buyback, was made to keep Dorsey, but he didn't stick around for long.

Jeff Bezos
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Jeff Bezos | Amazon

Jeff Bezos founded Amazon, then a humble online bookseller, in 1994, and oversaw its growth into a tech and e-commerce giant. He stepped down in July 2021 as CEO, passing the baton to Andy Jassy, leader of Amazon Web Services. Bezos didn't exactly retire, however. He has stayed on as executive chairman and is devoting more time to projects like Blue Origin, his SpaceX competitor, as well as the Bezos Earth Fund and The Washington Post, which he owns.

 John Flannery, GE CEO
John Flannery, GE CEO by Stagophile (CC BY-SA)

John Flannery | GE

After little more than year in the top job at the iconic company, the board said it was lights out for CEO John Flannery in late 2018. The company has been struggling with disappointing earnings and the current quarter would be no different, missing projections again. A 30-year GE veteran, Flannery was immediately replaced by board member and outsider Larry Culp. The company's stock has performed better under Culp, but like many of its competitors, GE has struggled from the impact of COVID-19.

Kevin Systrom
Kevin Systrom by Christopher Michel (CC BY)

Kevin Systrom | Instagram

CEO Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger started the photo-sharing app Instagram in 2010, and it was subsequently bought by Facebook for $1 billion in 2012, one of the social-media giant's most successful acquisitions. The service has about 1 billion users every month and was estimated to be worth $100 billion in 2018, but tensions with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly led the pair to resign in September 2018. 

Bill Gates
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Bill Gates | Microsoft

Few individuals have had a greater impact on human civilization than Bill Gates, who in 2000 stepped down as CEO of Microsoft, the company he created with Paul Allen in 1975. In the 25 years between, Microsoft became the biggest company in the world and Gates became the richest person on Earth, though both titles have been trumped in recent years. Gates remained a board member of the company until early 2020, but sold most of his Microsoft stock and focused on his lofty philanthropic efforts. The company has been doing just fine: Its stock hovered around $50 when he resigned the CEO role; today, it's well over $285.

John Schnatter
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John Schnatter | Papa John's

John Schnatter launched Papa John's in 1984 and built it into an empire that muscled into direct competition with giants such as Domino's and Pizza Hut. He joined a tiny group of bosses who also served as the face of the business, including Colonel Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dave Thomas of Wendy's. In 2017, however, Schnatter ignited a firestorm when he inserted the company into a controversy surrounding political protests by players in the NFL, the league for which Papa John's served as an official sponsor. A year later, Schnatter resigned as chairman of the company, which immediately distanced itself from its founder after Schnatter was heard using a racial slur during a conference call. Since his departure, he has roundly criticized the company even as it's stock has gianed ground.

Steve Ells
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Steve Ells | Chipotle

In 1993, a chef named Steve Ells intended to open a fine-dining restaurant. He instead wound up building his small burrito shop into Chipotle, one of the biggest restaurant chains in the world. Already under fire for his massive compensation package, Ells' tenure was dealt a mortal blow in 2017 when dozens of people were sickened by viral outbreaks just a few weeks apart — first E. coli and then norovirus — traced to food served at Chipotle. When Ells left his role as chairman of the board in March of 2020, Chipotle stock was at $710. Today it is over $1,300.

Travis Kalanick
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Travis Kalanick | Uber

When Travis Kalanick stepped down as CEO of Uber in 2017, it was the culmination of a hellish year for the pioneering rideshare company. Uber was fined $20 million for dishonest recruiting tactics, protesters chained themselves to the doors of the company's offices, high-ranking executives fled, the company was the target of several lawsuits, a driver caught Kalanick on video making arguably insensitive and defensive remarks about the company, and, perhaps most damningly, an employee publicly detailed a culture of sexism and harassment that she claimed was widespread throughout the company. Kalanick also stepped down from the company's board of directors in late 2019 and sold almost all of his shares in the company, which may have been a little premature: Its stock rose steadily, meaning he left some $1.2 billion on the table.

Ursula Burns
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Ursula Burns | Xerox

Raised in public housing projects in New York City, Ursula Burns started with Xerox as an intern in 1980. A little less than three decades later, she became the first Black woman to run a Fortune 500 company when she took over as CEO. She stepped down in 2017 when the company divided successfully into two businesses.

Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaking in November 2017.
Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix speaking in November 2017. by Web Summit - SAM_7454 (CC BY)

Alexander Nix and Alexander Taylor| Cambridge Analytica

In 2018, the name Cambridge Analytica became synonymous with the misuse of private data to improperly influence elections. A sting caught top executives openly discussing much of what the company had been accused of doing, and CEO Alexander Nix was suspended in the wake. Chief Data Officer Alexander Taylor was named his interim replacement — and stepped down just a month later.

Karen Katz, President & CEO, Neiman Marcus
Karen Katz, President & CEO, Neiman Marcus by World Travel & Tourism Council (CC BY)

Karen Katz | Neiman Marcus

Luxury retailer Neiman Marcus built its business on high-end clothing and personal shopping, trends largely shunned by younger shoppers. That, along with other changes in shopping that have rattled retailers across the board, forced the company to take on $4.4 billion in long-term debt. In early 2018, the company decided it was time for a change in leadership, and Karen Katz stepped down as CEO. In 2020, the company filed for Chapter 11 protection in early May and stayed open during reorganization, emerging from bankruptcy in September with a debt load reduced by a whopping $4 billion.

Dov Charney
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Dov Charney | American Apparel

Dov Charney founded the iconic brand American Apparel, but his leadership was clouded by a continual stream of sexual misconduct allegations, and he has admitted to multiple trysts with employees. By 2014, the pressure proved too great, and Charney was fired. The next year, American Apparel filed for bankruptcy, and in 2017, it was acquired by Gildan Activewear. All of its stores shut down shortly after the buyout. 

Subway
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Suzanne Greco | Subway

Suzanne Greco joined Subway in 1973 as a sandwich stuffer and rose all the way to CEO in 2015, the same year co-founder and former CEO Fred DeLuca died of cancer. DeLuca happened to be her brother; though no one claimed her ascent was due to nepotism, franchisees revolted as the company's position deteriorated rapidly during her tenure, closing 900 U.S. stores with 500 more set to close by the end of 2018. She stepped down in May of that year, and was replaced by Burger King veteran John Chidsey in 2019. It's still rough going at the sandwich chain, which continued to shut down restaurants at a rapid clip. 

Meg Whitman speaks at the Tech Museum in San Jose
Meg Whitman speaks at the Tech Museum in San Jose by Max Morse (CC BY)

Meg Whitman | Hewlett-Packard

During her six-year tenure at Hewlett-Packard, Meg Whitman was one of the most powerful women in business, a candidate for governor of California, and the CEO who oversaw one of history's biggest corporate breakups. Before she stepped down in 2013, Whitman had cost tens of thousands of jobs and jettisoned a huge number of HP assets. She continued on as leader of Hewlett Packard Enterprise through 2017, and became CEO of Quibi, a short-form streaming app that shut down after just six months following its April 2020 launch.

Andrew Mason
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Andrew Mason | Groupon

In a contrite yet playful letter of resignation, Andrew Mason announced to his employees in 2013 that he'd been fired as CEO of Groupon. The company was a rising star in the industry and a must-have tech stock — until its value dropped to a quarter of its listing price. His departure came after the company missed its own projections for two straight quarters. Groupon has been on uncertain footing in recent years, with its stock falling to below $20 a share, a far cry from a high of over $520 in 2011.


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