The moment of truth for Starbucks came in 2008 when Howard Schultz had just returned to the c.e.o. post after eight years away. The company was in dire straights. Comparable store sales had gone negative for the first time, and he was running worst-case scenarios for the board that would have left the company insolvent.

Schultz had just spent almost $33 million to bring 11,000 store managers to New Orleans from all around the world. He was preparing a speech for them on the final day of meetings and his most trusted advisors told him, almost in unison, that he could not share with them how desperate the situation really was.

“That was my question of leadership, my moment of truth, of authenticity,” said the Starbucks’ chairman, c.e.o. and president in a speech at the recent National Restaurant Association’s National Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show in Chicago. “I had to decide whether I could trust our people with all the information I had, with great transparency of how bad the situation really was, and tell them what I needed.”

Schultz then laid out the facts, in full detail. He asked his store managers two things: “What does it mean to be great, and what does it truly meant to be accountable to that greatness?”

“Greatness is not 90 percent. It’s not 99 percent,” he said. “Especially when you’re fighting for your life and every customer experience matters more than any other time in company history. I had to make it personal.”

Schultz detailed that story and more to a capacity crowd during his keynote presentation titled, “Transforming Companies for the Future: Balancing Profit with a Social Conscience.” His message to restaurant owners and foodservice operators was simple: “Success is best when it’s shared.”

But the story of the rise and fall of Starbucks, and its recovery after nearly hitting rock bottom in 2008, wasn’t so simple.

From the start

Schultz has always made it personal, from his earliest days at Starbucks in 1982 as the director of operations and marketing to when he took over the company in 1987 after purchasing it with the help of local investors.  

“I have tried to build the company that my father never got to work for,” he said of his dream. It’s the reason Starbucks was one of the first to offer full health benefits in 1988 to all full- and part-time employees.

Schultz grew up in Brooklyn Heights, NY, the son of a blue-collar worker, a truck driver who slipped and broke his hip and leg and was dismissed without the safety net of workers’ compensation or health insurance. “At the age of 7, I witnessed firsthand the hopelessness of fractured dreams,” he said. “It scarred me.”

In 1991, Starbucks became one of the first privately owned U.S. companies to offer a stock option program (called Bean Stock) to all employees, including part-timers. A year later, the company went public with 125 stores and a total value of $250 million. “I thought I had hit the lottery,” Schultz said.

“For 20 straight years, Starbucks was on a magical carpet ride,” he said. “Everything we touched turned to gold.” Schultz transitioned from the c.e.o. role in 2000 to chief global strategist when the company had more than 3,500 stores.