WSJ News Exclusive | Starbucks’s Head of North America Departs Company


Starbucks said

Rossann Williams

will leave the company at the end of the month. Ms. Williams—who started at Starbucks as a regional vice president in 2004 and worked her way up to the executive vice president level—was at the company for more than 17 years. Over the past year, Ms. Williams has been one of the coffee giant’s point people in responding to an expanding unionization effort among baristas.

Starbucks said Ms. Williams was offered another role at the company, but she decided to depart from the chain on her own.

“The decision was not taken lightly,” Starbucks Chief Operating Officer

John Culver

said in a message Friday to employees about Ms. Williams’ departure, which was viewed by The Wall Street Journal. Ms. Williams didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Ms. Williams, in a message to Starbucks employees, thanked them for their efforts through a difficult period, and for challenging what she called the company’s status quo. “Starbucks is a company, a family, a belief system, and a tremendous light with a great future,” she said in the message, which was viewed by the Journal.

Mr. Schultz has shuffled Starbucks’s executive ranks since returning to the company in April, saying in an interview last month that he is seeking fresh talent that Starbucks doesn’t currently have. Last month, Starbucks said its chief human resources officer, executive vice president of public affairs and senior vice president of public policy would depart in May. Starbucks’s general counsel departed from her role in April.

Starbucks is considering only external candidates for its next CEO, Mr. Schultz has said, and aims to identify its new leader by the fall.

Sara Trilling, Starbucks’s current president of its Asia Pacific operation who has worked for the company for 20 years, will lead the North American business as of June 21, the company said.

Cliff Burrows,

a former Starbucks president brought back by Mr. Schultz as an adviser to the company in recent months, will help Ms. Trilling in her new role, the company said.

Ms. Williams, who often wears green blazers that match the company’s signature color, has been heavily involved in meeting with baristas as a unionization campaign has gained traction in the company’s U.S. cafes. She spent weeks talking to Buffalo, N.Y.-area employees as they considered whether to unionize last year. Starbucks’s leadership has urged employees to maintain their direct relationship with the company, rather than forming unions to seek better pay and benefits.

One of the Buffalo-area cafes that Ms. Williams visited later voted to unionize, helping kick off what became a national push to form unions at Starbucks U.S. locations. The NLRB said it had certified unions at 110 of Starbucks’s 9,000 U.S. company stores as of Wednesday, with the company winning 11 elections and 11 others under review.

Ms. Williams, who was known to give out her phone number to baristas and send personal notes to employees, had continued to take a front-and-center role in internal events after Mr. Schultz’s return. She worked under Mr. Schultz during his second tenure as CEO at the company, and continued to advance under former CEO

Kevin Johnson.

“This has been one of the most exciting weeks of my entire career here at Starbucks,” Ms. Williams wrote in a message to U.S. leaders after Mr. Schultz’s return. “As Howard said, and I now reaffirm, our best days are ahead of us.”

Ms. Trilling started working at Starbucks in store design in 2002 before shifting to operations, then overseeing the Evolution Fresh juice brand after the company acquired it in 2011. She most recently managed Starbucks’s food offerings before leading 14 markets in the company’s Asia Pacific region.

“She has touched nearly every aspect of our business,” Mr. Culver said about Ms. Trilling in the employee message. “I am confident that she will bring her rich experience and proven approach to servant leadership to advance our U.S. business transformation.”

Starbucks trails only McDonald’s as the largest restaurant chain by market capitalization. WSJ’s Heather Haddon explains why mobile technology has become a business priority for Starbucks and garnered it a loyal customer base. Photo: Stanislav Kogiku/Zuma Press

Write to Heather Haddon at

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