A former Marine recruiter’s job with Starbucks is all about connection
Chat with Starbucks’ Tom Tice awhile about his job, and you get the impression that the retired Marine is like a kid in a candy store when he goes to work each day. It’s not the caffeine talking; he is just that enthusiastic about what he does. Now he’s working to recruit some 10,000 former military personnel and active-duty military spouses to become Starbucks partners—the employees who provide what the company calls the Starbucks Experience.
Tice started his career as a Marine in the late 1980s as a heavy machine gunner, then served duty in U.S. embassies before becoming a recruiter. In that capacity, he said, he never quite knew what a day was going to be like. It could have been helping people with no family military history understand what it means to be a Marine. Or dealing with people of very different cultures while working in U.S. embassies in Africa and South America. In the midst of that ambiguity, he sought to create connection.
Tice loved being a Marine. “It was very fulfilling, and every day was a new challenge. [I] absolutely loved the Marine Corps. It was a privilege to earn the title of U.S. Marine, and it was a privilege to have served with America’s finest.”
When he retired from the Marines in June 2009 as a master sergeant after more than 20 years of service, he spent 2 ½ years as a stay-at-home dad and, while he loved that experience, he said, it was a very tough job. When he and his wife, Brandy, were expecting their second child, he decided to look for a new career. He started at Starbucks as a contract employee in early 2012 and found that his military skills and training fit well with the company. That October, he was hired full time as a manufacturing recruiter.
“You come to work at Starbucks, and every day is a little different,” he said. “You might have a plan, but you’ve got to change”—not too different from being a Marine recruiter. Now, as he recruits veterans and active-duty spouses, he sees the need for similar skills: “I think just being versatile and being able to be—in the Marine Corps we called it ‘Semper Gumby.’ Here we call it just [being] flexible.” Tice thinks that veterans and active-duty spouses, whether from the Marine Corps or not, bring a lot of that valuable Semper Gumby spirit to the company.
For Tice, the common theme throughout his careers—as Marine recruiter, stay-at-home dad, Starbucks’ manager for military recruitment—is connection, that is, creating understanding among people who otherwise might not understand the Marines or Starbucks. “[Starbucks’] core values are very similar to [those of] the military. I often say that in the Marine Corps, the two objectives of leadership are mission accomplishment and troop welfare. And [at] Starbucks, the two objectives of our business are legendary customer service and taking care of partners. And they just match so well.”
Here’s the in-depth discussion that Army AL&T had with Tice on Aug. 28.
Army AL&T: Starbucks has been around in its present state for more than 25 years. What are the biggest changes the company has seen in its workforce since then? How have you adapted (your training, your recruiting, etc.) as a result?
Tice: Our partners—what Starbucks calls its employees, [which number some 300,000]—have always been at the core of our business. For over 40 years, we have hired passionate people who create inspired moments of connection with our customers every day. Although the company has grown, what has remained the same is our commitment to investing in the people who create the Starbucks Experience for more than 70 million customers per week, in more than 21,000 stores in 65 countries around the world. From beverages, such as the pumpkin spice latte that customers look forward to every fall, to locally relevant store designs, such as our New Orleans store, which honors the artistic spirit of the community, we’re always looking to preserve and encourage the human connection with every decision we make.
We hire and retain great people and are always looking for top talent and the right cultural fit to ensure our future success—people with a passion for coffee, service and their communities. When you come in, you should have this wonderful encounter with our partners and really have an engaging interaction. Starbucks is about a journey, and the Starbucks Experience is kind of that journey you have within our stores.
We call [the stores] snowflakes, because they’re each designed with the community in mind that they will serve or be a part of. Starbucks is huge in being a part of [the local] community. So bringing that design element to that store with the outlying community piece is integral, and ensuring that we capture what’s there [in the community] to provide that Starbucks Experience in its entirety. We have regional offices with designers in them that go around looking at where we’re going to either remodel or build a new store. They have a formula where they look at the communities and really try to capture the elements and essence of that community.
Starbucks made the strategic decision to hire 10,000 military veterans and active-duty spouses by the end of 2018. Our leaders recognize the considerable skills and experience that veterans and military spouses could bring to our business, and the fact that more than 1 million American service members will be returning to civilian life over the next few years. In addition to [creating] my role as a dedicated military recruiter, we have increased our presence at military job fairs and placed a number of veterans and military spouses into roles in a wide range of opportunities that leverage their leadership, discipline and operational experience. More importantly, we are keenly focused on building the team, tools and culture to support our initiative and ensure that we do all that we can to properly on-board veterans and military spouses. Hiring is just the first step. We are also focused on retention, [because] keeping the military and spouse candidates will provide our company long-term benefits.
Army AL&T: You refer to your employees, talent, associates, human capital, etc., as “partners.” What gave rise to this terminology, and what does it mean to Starbucks?
Tice: The term comes from the fact that our employees are partners in every sense of the word—how we conduct our business and how we treat others. In 1991, the company introduced Bean Stock, which turned eligible Starbucks employees into partners by providing the opportunity to share in the financial success of the company through Starbucks stock. Bean Stock was the first program of its kind in the retail industry. It encouraged partners to act like owners of the business and share in the company’s success. In FY 2013, partners enjoyed $234 million in pretax gains from Bean Stock.
Army AL&T: Other restaurants known for coffee, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, are franchise operations. Starbucks doesn’t really franchise. About 40 percent of stores are licensed in the United States—for example, a store you might find in an airport—and about 48 percent on average worldwide. What are the implications, or benefits, for the partners at the majority of Starbucks’ stores?
Tice: Going back to our partners being the core of our business, Starbucks CEO and Chairman Howard Schultz has long recognized that having company-owned stores makes it easier for the company to build trust with those partners. We own and operate the stores and take accountability for them. As such, our partners trust the company, in turn making it easier for them to build trust with our customers. For those stores that are licensed, the licensee is a trusted business partner and represents our brand well. We are proud to be at the front of the relationship with our customers.
Starbucks does really well taking care of their partners. So there’s not a whole lot of need for change in the area of retention. … We’re [always] looking at what we can do. We take care of the partners so well with the Bean Stock—and if they stay with us, they get more vacation time, and now [we have] the College Achievement Plan.
There’s nothing specific for the military veteran and spouse yet, but we are reviewing that. [But] the added value that we’ve noticed from the military is they tend to stay with us longer, or transfer from location to location. Because Starbucks is in all those locations, we have a great opportunity [for the active-duty spouse] to be in just about every geographical location. But, also, we have such flexibility of times. At Starbucks, a partner can start at 4 a.m. or 6 a.m., depending on the store, and we have part-time roles available. One thing that Starbucks has always done is, that, at 20 hours a week as a part-timer, you receive full-time benefits.
And with a spousal candidate being able to receive Bean Stock and vacation time at 20 hours a week, having them come to work for us and having that flexibility, that geographical option—one of the things that I’ve noticed is that spouses, every time they’re PCSing [undergoing a permanent change of station], stop working for a short period of time. They take care of their family, get the kids back in school, whatever it may be to set up their environment there, and then they try to look for employment again. And it’s a restart. So we really want to encourage our spouses [to understand] that we have that geographical footprint, we have flexibility of time, and with that comes the potential to be retained for a long period of time. It really kind of reduces for us that period that would be necessary to train partners, because we have this survivable talent pool that can move across different areas.
Army AL&T: You have a military background. What was your field? What, if anything, do you think it brings to your work with Starbucks?
Tice: My military background is somewhat diverse. I enlisted in the Marine Corps and served as a heavy machine gunner with 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, where I served in Operations Desert Shield and Storm and Operation Restore Hope. I then was accepted to serve tours at the American embassies in N’Djamena, Chad, and La Paz, Bolivia. I attended the Supply and Administration Course, after which I supported Headquarters Marine Corps for two years as the supply and logistics chief.
During the last few years before I retired, I represented the Marine Corps and recruited for enlisted [personnel] and officers in the Seattle area. I also helped train new recruiters throughout the state of Washington. This latter tour of duty was especially helpful when I started my job search and started working for Starbucks, but everything I’ve done has prepared me to work here. I think the most important piece of my background that made the biggest impact, is that while I was on recruiting duty, I handled a lot of ambiguity daily, dealing with a lot of variety. Learning to navigate around different workplace situations has helped me transition to civilian culture.
As a Marine recruiter, you’re embedded with the community. You work with high school students, college students, but you also have to navigate high school teachers and principals and counselors and family members. It’s unfamiliar territory for some if they’ve never served. We have a small population of America that has served in the military. So a lot of it is truly trying to give them the information and educate them on what the military is, and a piece I think I brought from my military time as a recruiter into Starbucks is very similar. Having to navigate an unknown for somebody else, or share a story or develop that [story], has really helped me here [at Starbucks to] tell a bigger story, specifically in recruiting.
Army AL&T: Starbucks started out rather humbly but has become a worldwide operation over the last 25 years, with stores in 65 countries. What have been the implications of that growth from a workforce perspective?
Tice: To get from fewer than 100 employees less than 30 years ago to a global workforce of several hundred thousand now, we’ve had to build expertise in sourcing, logistics, roasting, farming, human resources, finance and, most especially, in hiring and training partners who can create the Starbucks Experience in stores globally. As the workforce is ever-changing, we always look to hire the best candidate for the right position. That can be challenging depending on the position, and as we enter new lines of business or grow into new markets, we have to find the experience that we might lack. Here in the United States, one of the ways we’ve overcome that challenge has been through our Military Hiring Initiative. Since that initiative launched, we’ve had an overwhelming response from the community that helps us grow our business and further diversifies our workforce, delivering value to our shareholders and the communities we serve.
We understand that to be successful in other markets [globally], we have to create store experiences that are inspired by the culture and passions of the community. We hire store partners who will connect with the community where they work, whether that’s speaking the local language or engaging with every customer to create inspired moments of connection. For corporate positions in our support centers, many of our partners speak English as well as the local language. That allows us to create global training and bring local experiences to other markets.
Army AL&T: With sequestration and budget uncertainty, the Army, not to mention the federal government, can sometimes seem like not the most attractive employer. What can the Army learn from Starbucks with respect to retention of valued people?
Tice: I can remember going through periods of furloughs [when I was in the Marines], and I clearly recall the heavy impact it can have on the government, military and the people who work for public institutions. I know that as a result of sequestration, some personnel opted to transfer from the public sector to the private sector. This loss of talent negatively impacts the operational effectiveness of any organization. Realizing that retention isn’t always possible, understanding how to keep those who can adapt and grow while staying engaged is essential. Providing opportunities for our partners to grow and develop is critical to retention. We are committed to developing our partners to become leaders and to influence beyond their own store and role, leaders who can make a significant, positive impact for our business, each other and our world.
Army AL&T: How do Starbucks people affect its policies? For example, when employees find a better way of doing something, how does that get to the top so that it becomes a standard practice? Can you provide an example or two?
Tice: We have a few ways we encourage our partners to make positive changes. In our stores, we empower our partners to bring new ideas to the table that lead to innovation for the company. For partners in all our locations, not just stores, we have the MyStarbucksIdea site, a place where partners can share their ideas. In 2011, Starbucks saved between $5 million and $10 million because of an idea a store manager shared that eliminated waste with our whipped cream. Our leaders also make a point to visit stores regularly and hear what is top-of-mind for our partners. They are looking for the on-the-ground insights that will help us create an even better experience for our customers, as well as ways to improve the partner experience.
We have a board downstairs on our fifth floor that is kind of like “My Partner Idea,” and it’s a running tally of partners submitting better ideas. And this particular one with the whipped cream saved millions of dollars. I forget the exact total, but there are hundreds of ideas that partners will submit that really help develop the company from the ground up and really taught [us] that our partners are important in everything that we do. So it’s really a partner-centered company that loves that innovation.
You’re familiar with the espresso machines with the hoppers on top that we pour the coffee beans into? At one point those hoppers and machines were larger, and it was hard for the barista to actually see the customer. We want the interaction, the customer experience, to be more of a flow so that, when they designed the machine, they designed it so that you could see past the hopper, for the barista to be able to engage with the customers.
Army AL&T: Army acquisition personnel must have legally mandated (by the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act) training, education and experience within a set timeframe, unlike most of industry. What routes or programs do Starbucks employees have to advance through the ranks? How, for example, does a barista become a manager [and] become an executive, and does it differ by country?
Tice: We are dedicated to training our partners and providing them with opportunities to excel and promote. To advance at Starbucks, partners need to demonstrate a passion for what we do. In addition to the training we provide our baristas to prepare them to be promoted to a shift supervisor, to an assistant store manager and on to a store manager and so on, we look for ways to provide our partners with life-changing, global experiences. These opportunities include our Global Month of Service [program], where partners volunteer in their communities in the month of April, [and] the Origin Experience, where partners travel to one of our coffee farms to learn how we’re building long-term relationships with farmers and their families. Coffee started in Ethiopia and has migrated into a lot of countries around the equator. It really is like a pilgrimage. It’s kind of a journey of understanding coffee and its holistic nature. It’s really cool. I’ve not been. I’ve seen a lot of pictures from others who have gone, and they’re absolutely moved by some of the places and people they meet.
And [then there’s] the Leadership Experience, where store managers come together to build on their leadership skills.
Additionally, Starbucks is dedicated to helping our partners further their career at Starbucks or wherever they aspire to go by completing their education. Earlier this year, we announced the Starbucks College Achievement Plan, a significant partnership with Arizona State University that will enable our U.S. partners to complete their bachelor’s degree with full tuition coverage. Our partners will have the ability to choose from more than 40 undergraduate degree programs. We believe that our partners will have a rewarding career at Starbucks, but we also recognize our partners have aspirations in other fields. That’s why we are not requiring partners to stay with Starbucks once they have completed their degrees.
Army AL&T: The Army likes to “grow its own” acquisition experts, preferring to recruit out of college and grow into future program leaders. Does Starbucks follow that model and, if so, how do you maintain the career path from barista to corporate leader?
Tice: It is essential that all of our partners understand and embrace the culture that makes us successful. Those partners who have the experience of working at the store level often have a more complete understanding of that culture, but we also work to provide that exposure to partners who join us from other organizations. It is also important to Starbucks to stay at the forefront of innovation, from our mobile platform to our store designs to our customer service. Bringing in new talent from diverse backgrounds helps us to tap into the imagination of our teams.
Army AL&T: Do Starbucks people develop any of the equipment that Starbucks uses or any of the merchandise that Starbucks sells? If so, is there a Starbucks research and development function? If not, how does Starbucks acquire the tools of the trade?
Tice: Starbucks develops much of what we use on a daily basis in our stores. We have an in-house design team that drives the look and feel of our stores and merchandise. We do purchase some equipment, such as our Mastrena espresso machines, but we are constantly working toward new developments and technologies within the company, and are on the lookout for new technologies. We think that our in-house teams are well-equipped to develop new tools and processes because they know our culture and how important our customers are to the brand.
Army AL&T: What else can you tell us about Starbucks’ military recruitment program? What kind of a priority is it for the company?
Tice: This is a top priority for the company. Not only are veterans exceptionally well-trained, but they have strong work ethics and highly valued, transferable skills and leadership. We want to leverage this considerable amount of leadership, discipline and operations experience and give ample opportunity for veterans to transition from the military. Another opportunity are the 1.2 million active-duty military spouses. As a result of moving frequently, military spouses come from diverse backgrounds and bring with them many qualities and skills that would translate well into a career at Starbucks. With more than 21,000 stores in 65 countries, Starbucks would have the opportunity to retain military spouses when they move.
It’s an amazing honor to be a part of … making the connection between the military community and Starbucks.
Army AL&T: How did your own military experience prepare you to work at Starbucks in the various segments you’ve worked in?
Tice: My many experiences in the Marine Corps have uniquely positioned me to handle a wide range of opportunities at Starbucks. I believe the intangible aspects of creative problem-solving, influencing without authority or navigating an ambiguous environment have been critical to my development as a leader. The people skills I acquired during my service have been a tremendous asset to my post-service career, which has included manufacturing recruiter, partner (human) resource manager and recruiting manager.
Army AL&T: Are there any similarities between military recruitment and recruiting for Starbucks?
Tice: When it comes to military service, only a select few aspire to give of themselves unselfishly in order to serve our great nation. Yet I find that our partners without military experience have a very similar desire to give of themselves to serve the communities where our stores are located. Our CEO, Howard Schultz, often states how proud he is of our partners for their willingness to go above and beyond, and I feel like Starbucks is another extended family. No matter where I travel, be it Germany, San Antonio, San Diego or right here in my hometown of Seattle, when I visit a Starbucks store I am amazed at the value our partners bring to the community and how inspiring they are on a daily basis![Schultz] is known for having open forums, and he’ll tell a story or bring someone in. When we made the announcement [of the Military Hiring Initiative], we had a couple of partners who had previous military experience, who transitioned out of the military and had just started working with us. One of them was in the Austin, Texas, area or in the southern Texas area, and his name was Ty. He had just gotten out of the Marine Corps. He’d been a sniper, he was a single dad and he was going back to his home. And we flew him up and Howard met him, shook his hand. We introduced him in the open forum during [the shareholders’ meeting at the announcement of the initiative], and Ty was a person that epitomized the value of our partner—who he was, what he’s done and what he was doing for himself, going above and beyond being a single dad and going back to school, working and being a part of a greater community and what that all represented. I think that’s a perfect example on a daily basis of how much Howard cares about his partners—that he would go to Texas and find somebody that was really relevant and honor them in that fashion.
When I recruited for the Marine Corps, we always recognized that becoming a United States Marine was an admirable goal and an opportunity that was rewarding for those who served. While certainly not the same, the chance to become a partner with Starbucks is also a great opportunity and can be incredibly rewarding. Starbucks’ core values and mission statement are key indicators of this similarity. At both places, being committed and passionate is an important quality, and having had the opportunity to work with both institutions, I can identify those qualities in my recruiting.
Army AL&T: Starbucks has bucked the trend of the last couple of decades—instead of building an online business, the company has built brick-and-mortar shops seemingly everywhere. Your website calls Starbucks “a place for conversation and a sense of community.” How does the company view its partners’ role in that?
Tice: While Starbucks has been incredibly innovative in the digital space, as a leading mobile payment company with a strong digital identity, we continue to build our physical presence. As I’ve mentioned, we won’t be successful without the right partners. We put a lot of thought and resource into the designs of our locations, taking the local community into the account so that we can provide a place that is relevant to each market. Once in our stores, that’s when our partners begin to establish and nurture relationships with our customers, providing great service and high-quality food and beverages. It is a combination of both design and community that creates comfort, and our partners are the cornerstone of the store community.[In addition], the fact that you can download an app, put it on your phone and walk up to a cashier and pay with that app has been one of the key things that people love about coming in the stores. So you can scan that in and tip your barista as well. So that’s pretty key to the digital world, as it’s some of the first of its kind.
Army AL&T: What does the future hold? What are the biggest issues you’ll face? What excites you most?
Tice: From a recruiting perspective, making it clear that Starbucks is a place where partners can learn skills that will work for them well beyond their Starbucks career is a priority.
I am motivated by the opportunities for our military service members, veterans and spouses to become a part of such a company that views the social and corporate responsibilities through a lens of humanity.
This article was originally published in the October – December 2014 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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