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Did Starbucks' same-sex marriage stance really hurt its bottom line?

Associated Press

Did Starbucks’ stance on same-sex marriage hurt its bottom line?

A shareholder claimed as much during the company’s annual meeting last month, prompting a heated exchange with Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. The shareholder, citing a boycott by the National Organization for Marriage of the company, hinted that Starbucks’ stock price had suffered. 

“Was it all due to this boycott? Probably not. Was some of it due to this boycott? Probably so,” said shareholder Tom Strobhar.  

Schultz openly bristled at the implication and  pointed out the company’s healthy return-on-equity from last year.

“If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38 percent you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much,” Schultz said, prompting a loud ovation from the audience.

The man behind the comment

Strobhar is not just any investor; he is the founder of the Corporate Morality Action Center. Among other things, Strobhar buys small batches of stock in big companies like Microsoft and Target. Those stocks buy him a seat at the table to promote conservative causes. He brought up a similar question at Starbucks’ previous annual meeting.

Strobhar argues Starbucks’ political entanglements are both immoral and bad for business.

“Every CEO in this country is paid to make economic decisions that enhance shareholder value, and part of it is, we ask CEOs and others to leave their personal political interests aside,” Strobhar said during a phone interview.

So did this political gesture cost shareholder value? It’s hard to tell just from looking at the company’s financial performance. In the three weeks following the boycott announcement, the company’s stock actually climbed about 15 percent.

Starbucks stocks did slide, but why?

The stock value did take a dive four months later, dropping by some 22 percent.

“That was when the earnings were announced for the first full quarter after the boycott,” Strobhar said. “Something happened in that quarter that [Schultz] hadn’t planned for, and it was a surprise. And you know, when you miss your guidance, the investment community says maybe you don’t really know what’s going on. And that’s why it dropped.”

The company attributed that decline to the global economic woes. In fact, in several regions targeted by the boycott campaign including Asia, the company performed well. It was largely in Europe where sales fell flat. The stock value rebounded by fall of last year.

Analyst: Boycott was negligible

Analyst R. J. Hottovy of Morningstar said boycotts like the “Dump Starbucks” campaign very rarely affect the company’s stock price.

“Typically we don’t see much of an impact. Honestly, the boycott usually is so small in scope that it has a marginal impact on results, and usually they’re pretty short-term in nature,” he said.

The exceptions come when a boycott is widespread, concerns a company’s core business and damages its brand. Those were not the case for the National Organization for Marriage’s Starbucks campaign, Hottovy said.

The National Organization for Marriage had tallied about 60,000 supporters for its boycott as of the end of March, compared to an estimated 70 million weekly Starbucks customers.

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.
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