Al Lewis: It's Always a Great Day to Open a Starbucks

Sometimes, even positive-thinking, inspirational leaders like Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks Corp. (NASDAQ:SBUX), expect the worst.

During a telephone interview, Schultz took me back to 1996 Japan, where Starbucks would open its first store outside the U.S.

"I couldn't have picked a worse time to open a Starbucks in Tokyo," he said. "It's 100 degrees with humidity. .. As soon as you walk out of your hotel room, you need a shower.

"People were not dying for a hot cup of coffee."

Schultz tried to communicate his fear to his Japanese partner through a translator.

"I want you to prepare yourself," Schultz told him. "I don't think it's a great day to open Starbucks tomorrow. It's not going to be a great first day.

"But the translator was too afraid, or embarrassed, to say that," Schultz said. "So they said, 'Mr. Schultz said tomorrow is going to be the biggest opening that we ever had.'"

Later that night, Schultz retrieved a voicemail: CNN would cover the opening live. "Which kind of freaked me out because I was so nervous about what was going to happen," he said.

The next morning, Schultz arrived at the store at 5:30 a.m. Somehow, despite the knots in his stomach, hundreds of customers and media crews had lined up outside.

"I cut the ribbon, and a young college student, who could not speak English, runs to the cash register and says 'double tall latte.'

"That was the beginning of our international business, and I have never looked back," Schultz said.

Schultz has a new book out today: "Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul."

It takes readers back to 2008 -- a time when Schultz should have really been afraid.

His company had grown arrogant, in some cases opening stores within blocks of each other, while McDonald's (NYSE:MCD) and Dunkin' Donuts closed in.

The very idea of taking a boutique coffeehouse corporate was bound to result in a loss of coolness -- and so it had. To some, Starbucks' logo had even become a symbol of raging globalism.

Starbucks' sales and profits sank. A stock that once traded at nearly $40 fell below $8 in November 2008. And some speculated that the proud company had not only lost its soul but would soon become merger fodder.

Schultz, who'd been on an eight-year hiatus, returned as CEO, sparking headlines punctuated with questions marks: "Can Howard Schultz Save Starbucks?"

Then we learned it wasn't just Starbucks that had lost its way. It was the entire U.S. economy. And with millions of layoffs on the way, who had $4 to blow on coffee?

Schultz took extreme measures, closing 900 stores and cutting thousands of jobs.

He even shuttered 7,100 U.S. Starbucks on a Tuesday in February 2008. "We're taking time to perfect our espresso," a note on doors explained. The one-day store closures cost the company about $6 million. It gave competitors several hours to poach Starbucks addicts. And it made it too easy for analysts to predict that Starbucks had nowhere left to go but down.

Yet this week, as Starbucks celebrates its 40th anniversary, the company has grown to 17,000 stores. It's now growing wild in China, it marked 2010 as a record year, and even its stock has recovered to the upper $30s.

Schultz credits new products in grocery stores, particularly Via instant coffee, as well as social media, apps that allow customers to pay with mobile phones, and technology in general.

"We're in front of a computer. We're holding a cellphone. We are not among people as much as we once were. And Starbucks brings people together," Schultz said.

Not many CEOs pull off a turnaround amid one of the worst economic downturns in U.S. history. Fewer still write books about them.

"Nobody wants to go through the crisis we went through, but as a result of going through it, there's a new level of discipline .. that really bodes well for the future."