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Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO &
Arthur Rubinfeld, president of global development and chief creative officer

Dynamic Duos: Howard Schultz And Arthur Rubinfeld On Sharing A Starbucks Order

For more than 20 years, these two have steered the world's most famous coffee chain--in sync like brothers. They even both drink aged Sumatra drip.

Howard Schultz, chairman and CEO
Arthur Rubinfeld, president of global development and chief creative officer

Schultz: He has a rare combination of architectural education and experience, entrepreneurial curiosity and the ability from a creative point of view to see around corners.

Rubinfeld: Though we are often not in the same meetings at the same time, we have an understanding of when the other one would approve or have additional comments. We’re not reluctant to disagree when it comes to business.

“I love him.” In case Howard Schultz’s affection for longtime creative lead Arthur Rubinfeld was in doubt, he reiterates, re-punctuates. “I. Love. Him.”

The feeling is clearly mutual between the two ambitious Brooklynites who have steered the world’s most famous coffee chain together for more than two decades. “He’s like a brother to me,” Rubinfeld adds to the lovefest.

The pair met in their early 20s, when they lived in the same apartment block in downtown New York. Rubinfeld was working as an architect, on projects like Harry Helmsley’s Palace Hotel. (“I learned architecture is a great hobby and a tough profession,” he tells Co.Design.) Schultz, meanwhile, was a salesman--first with Xerox, then with a Swedish maker of coffee machines. His interest was piqued by exceptionally high sales from one client, a café in the Pacific Northwest.

JOIN THE ROUND TABLE

“Howard has what I call a very high CQ or Curiosity Quotient,” Rubinfeld says. “He sees the big picture before others.” It was certainly true in this case: In 1992, Schultz would recruit his old pal to help mastermind the creative side behind his new project, Starbucks. Together, they took the coffee chain global with both passion and fastidiousness--Rubinfeld required all tables be round because, he says, solo patrons don’t feel lonely sitting at them. Apparently, the square kind is alienating.

By 2002, they had each decamped to new projects. But five years later, when Starbucks sales slumped for the first time, Schultz was recalled to stop the dripping profits. Naturally, he asked Rubinfeld to join him. In 2008, Rubinfeld was the one to tell his friend to make the momentous decision to shutter around 600 cafés, the first mass closures Starbucks had ever weathered. Schultz agreed, noting, “He has a rare combination of architectural education and experience, entrepreneurial curiosity and the ability from a creative point of view to see around corners.”

That wave of shutdowns was not the duo’s only risky move: The returning CEO famously closed every one of the cafés simultaneously for three hours on a Tuesday afternoon to retrain all baristas, and announced a Starbucks-branded instant coffee (internally known as JAWS, or Just Add Water and Stir) that was pilloried before anyone even tasted it. The instant brew, renamed VIA, is now a profits blockbuster, one of the cornerstones of a re-energized company that has regained financial and pop culture clout. It’s largely thanks to the sixth-sense-like pairing of personalities at the top.

STORE AS CREATIVE TEMPLATE

Rubinfeld cites a recent redesign of the packaging for whole bean and ground coffee as typical of his working relationship with Schultz. “Though we are often not in the same meetings at the same time, we have an understanding of when the other one would approve or have additional comments.” He adds, “We’re not reluctant to disagree when it comes to business.”

For Schultz, who says he and Rubinfeld “can finish each other’s sentences,” nothing demonstrates his favorite collaborator’s design influence more than the newest store, at Oak & Rush in Chicago. The two-story location has a hand-painted world map highlighting the coffee belt, walls and ceilings paneled with reclaimed wood planks, and a steampunkish Siren logo, five feet in diameter, that’s composed from more than 7,000 nail heads. Downstairs is a more conventional daytime deliverer of caffeine; upstairs is an evening-focused space that also serves beer and wine.

“Arthur has great taste, but beyond that he understand pragmatically in an innate way what the customer will respond to,” Schultz explains. “This store is serving as a design and creative template for the next evolution of Starbucks.”

It also, of course, serves the Starbucks order the old friends share. Says Rubinfeld, “We both drink aged Sumatra drip coffee.”

Read more pairings from Fast Company's 10th Annual Innovation By Design issue:

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