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Is Howard Schultz of Starbucks the best CEO ever?

September 12, 2013: 11:16 AM ET
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz strikes a humble pose. But shareholders know he's one of the best CEOs out there.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz strikes a humble pose. But shareholders know he's one of the best CEOs out there.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul R. La Monica. Other than Time Warner, the parent of CNNMoney, Abbott Laboratories and AbbVie, La Monica does not own positions in any individual stocks.

With all due respect to the late Steve Jobs, Henry Ford, Sam Walton and Ray Kroc, Starbucks (SBUX) CEO Howard Schultz may be the best CEO ever.

Sure, the former heads of Apple (AAPL), Ford (F), Wal-Mart (WMT) and McDonald's (MCD) are all legends.

And it's admittedly silly to try and compare executives from different eras. It's the equivalent of a bunch of drunks at a bar yelling at each other about whether Peyton Manning or Tom Brady is better than Hall of Famers Johnny Unitas or Joe Montana.

But hear me out. Schultz, like Jobs, returned to a company that was in trouble and totally resurrected it.

Related: Starbucks expanding to Colombia

Schultz stepped down as CEO in 2000 and came back in January 2008. During his absence, the stock did hit a then all-time high of just under $40 (adjusted for several stock splits) in November 2006. But by early 2008, the stock had fallen to about $18.

Keep in mind that this happened while the broader market was still in bull mode. Sure, the Dow and S&P 500 had begun to retreat from their October 2007 peaks. But they were still higher than they were in November 2006. Starbucks lost nearly half its value.

Of course, the return of Schultz did not lead to immediate success for investors. The stock performance was colder than a Frappuccino during the first few months of his second stint as Barista-in-chief.

For one, Schultz made the difficult decision to cut back on stores -- especially in the United States. I'm sure Schultz was aware of the joke in the 2000 movie "Best in Show" about a couple who first met after the woman noticed her future husband at a Starbucks ... while she was sitting across the street at a different Starbucks.

And Schultz also suffered from bad economic timing. He took the helm just as the company was about to go through the country's worst financial crisis since (stop me if you've heard this before) the Great Depression.

By March 2009, Starbucks shares had plunged to barely above $8. But since then, investors have been on a caffeine high.

The stock hit an all-time high Thursday of just below $76. So Starbucks has surged more than 800% from the bear market lows. That's well above the 150% or so jump in the S&P 500 since March 2009.

But what really impresses me about Schultz is this. He has proven that a company can do its best to make money for its shareholders while also taking care of its employees.

The company routinely finds itself on Fortune's 100 Best Companies to Work For list. It made the cut again this year. It's also a stalwart on the World's Most Admired Companies list.

And Schultz recently told CNN that Starbucks will not cut back on existing health insurance benefits for its employees despite the fact that many other large companies, such as UPS (UPS), Papa John's (PZZA) and Delta (DAL) have recently complained about the impact that Obamacare will have on their bottom lines.

That's admirable. Schultz realizes that if a company's workers are happy, then that should also lead to happy consumers. And that's extremely important for a retailer.

Related: Starbucks sees big growth in China

So there you have it. A bunch of reasons why I think Schultz deserves to pull a Muhammad Ali. He may be the greatest CEO of all-time.

Do you agree? Disagree? If it's the latter, who would you say is the best CEO ever? Tweet me @LamonicaBuzz or e-mail at paul.lamonica@turner.com. I'll include some of my favorite comments in Tuesday's column.

Speaking of Twitter, it's time for my Reader Comment of the Week. I noted on Wednesday that satellite radio Sirius XM (SIRI) was at a 52-week high. And just like Starbucks, it's had an amazing comeback from the depths of the Great Recession.

But one Twitter follower joked that it was nice to see Sirius XM was not punished merely because its ticker symbol is the name of a certain (and often maligned) search tool with a female voice.

Ha! Maybe Apple (AAPL) should get Howard Stern to be the male voice for Siri?

  • Starbucks percs up: Stock jumps 4%

    Starbucks is enjoying a caffeine rush on Friday after the coffee king reported its latest quarterly results.

    Shares of Starbucks (SBUX) were up 4% in late morning trading. The company announced Thursday afternoon that fiscal first-quarter sales jumped 11% from a year ago and hit a record of $3.8 billion. Earnings per share were up 14%.

    Although these numbers simply met analysts' forecasts, many investors were clearly impressed to see the company MORE

    - Jan 25, 2013 11:59 AM ET
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