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Originally published May 21, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified May 23, 2011 at 7:13 AM

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Seattle's Best Coffee president Michelle Gass turning around brand

Seattle's Best Coffee president Michelle Gass is known at Starbucks' headquarters for transforming Frappuccinos in the 1990s into its most popular beverage. The key was her insistence on a visually appealing drink with caramel drizzle and a plastic domed lid.

Seattle Times business reporter

Seattle's Best Coffee

1969: Jim Stewart opens Wet Whisker in Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, selling only ice cream. The next summer, he adds coffee.

1971: Brother Dave joins business, which adds location at Pier 70 on the Seattle waterfront.

1991: After a couple of name changes (Stewart Brothers Coffee, SBC), the chain becomes Seattle's Best Coffee.

1994: Jim sells 60 percent of Seattle's Best to investors, and they merge it with a small chain called Torrefazione Italia.

1998: Seattle's Best and Torrefazione are sold to AFC Enterprises in Atlanta, which owns Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits.

2003: Starbucks buys Seattle's Best — which had 129 stores — and Torrefazione from AFC.

2009: Michelle Gass becomes president of Seattle's Best Coffee and its 550 cafés, most in Borders bookstores. Now there are 336, due mostly to Borders' bankruptcy, but Seattle's Best is sold at 50,000 Burger King, Subway and other locations.

Michelle Gass

President,

Seattle's Best Coffee

Early years: Grew up in Maine and majored in chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.

Early career: Worked for six years at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, focusing on Crest toothpaste and "helping bring white smiles to lots of people."

Family: Married Scott, another engineer, in 1995. He now cares full time for their two children.

Starbucks connection: Hired by Starbucks while working on her MBA at the University of Washington.

Early jobs at Starbucks: Head of marketing for Frappuccino; head of all marketing and products.

quotes Well if she does to this company what she did to the logo, it will soon be on the dust... Read more
quotes Wow..."really hard work"....let's drizzle caramel and use a domed lid! Our... Read more
quotes I personally have not set foot in a Starbucks since Howie and his buddy Greg sold our... Read more

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If Howard Schultz has a go-to executive, Michelle Gass is it.

When Schultz returned as Starbucks' CEO two years ago, he quickly snatched her away from marketing and product oversight to serve in his new, two-person "Office of the CEO," which meant talking strategy and next steps with him one-on-one.

"We were courageous and disruptive," Gass says of that effort. "I felt unleashed, with his energy and vision and willingness to be courageous. For someone like me who thrives on that, it was like, 'Wow! This is going to be a ride.' "

After their turnaround plan jelled, Gass orchestrated some of the chain's biggest moves — including putting together teams to launch Starbucks' loyalty-card program and its instant coffee.

Having joined Starbucks when it had just 1,000 stores — compared with more than 16,000 now — Gass knows the company well and has a strong sense of what customers want after years of successes and flops — notably, a chocolate drink called Chantico that lasted only a year.

She is known at headquarters for transforming Frappuccinos in the 1990s into Starbucks' most popular beverage. The key was her insistence on a visually appealing drink with caramel drizzle and a plastic domed lid.

When the head of operations complained about the added complexity, Gass refused to launch without the embellishments. She had customer feedback to support the idea that theater was important for that particular beverage, and she had the gumption to stand behind it.

Frappuccinos now bring in more than $2 billion a year in sales, out of the company's $10 billion total.

As Schultz puts it, Gass "possesses a rare leadership combination of courage, conviction and belief in her people that has made her an invaluable asset to Starbucks."

About the time Gass and her team rolled out Starbucks' instant coffee in 2009, Schultz called her into his office. He wanted her to head up Seattle's Best Coffee, a chain Starbucks had bought in 2003 and not done much with. It had about 550 cafes, most of them in Borders bookstores.

Her only orders were to "make it huge, and you get to own it all."

On a mission

In fewer than two years on the job, she is well on her way.

Gass — which rhymes with "floss" — has overhauled the identity of Seattle's Best, making it big and bold and completely separate from Starbucks.

Seattle's Best Coffee is sold now at 50,000 locations, including Subway and Burger King shops, AMC Theatres and the United Nations building in New York; Schultz has said he expects it to become a $1 billion brand. It's growing in the double digits now, but Starbucks won't say how big it is.

Gass, 43, has no illusions about Seattle's Best becoming the next Starbucks, which is known for its cafés.

Her vision is for Seattle's Best to bring good coffee to people wherever they are, from fast-food restaurants to hotels.

"What if Seattle's Best could be the brand that basically eradicates all the bad coffee out there?" she asks, eyes lit by the possibility.

Gass wants to "create an emotional connection around fun and optimism and a level of approachability and simplicity."

It sounds a lot like her.

A runner who majored in chemical engineering, she learned while working at Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati that she prefers consumers to chemical plants.

"It's about the humanity, the emotion," Gass said. "People are complex; they're ever changing and evolving."

After six years at Procter & Gamble, she moved with her husband, Scott Gass, to Seattle, which they loved for its entrepreneurial opportunities and vibrancy.

Gass met someone from Starbucks while working on her MBA at the University of Washington, and started as the Frappuccino marketing manager in 1996.

It was a year-old drink at that point and well-liked, but nothing indicated it would be a sales wonder until Gass added her touches.

She has made changes to the Seattle's Best look, too, unveiling a new logo for the brand and numbering and color coding its packaged coffees so that customers can easily understand what kind of roast they are buying.

"I would literally stand in a grocery store and watch people try to pick their coffee, and in some cases they would turn away without anything," Gass said. "Everything had gotten pretty serious and dark, and everything looked the same."

No. 1 and No. 2, which are yellow and orange, are lighter blends than either Seattle's Best or Starbucks has offered before — the kind of roast that often appeals to people coming off a Folgers habit. And the lineup of five coffee packages is conspicuously missing Starbucks green.

Gass has a talent for knowing what customers will like, said Chris Bruzzo, Starbucks' online chief, who has worked with her closely during his five years at the company.

"When we're in meetings and she says something is a 'big idea,' that's when you know you've got it," said Bruzzo, who remembers Gass using that phrase to describe many ideas during Starbucks' turnaround — including the notion of using a taste challenge to persuade customers to try its new instant coffee.

Head for details

Experience with Starbucks products obviously helps, but Gass also spends a lot of time talking to customers, he said, "understanding what they think and care about."

She also knows how to motivate people, Bruzzo said.

Gass moved the 200 people who work for Seattle's Best Coffee from disparate cubicles all over the building into a new, separate space at headquarters that features red-carpet red as prominently as the rest of the building does green.

"She gets people to work stronger, harder, to be more committed and have an 'everything matters' mentality," Bruzzo said.

Gass' engineering background gives her a strong grasp of numbers and details, which help make her a clear thinker who conveys her ideas easily to the people she works with.

But her heart leans toward marketing and branding.

Take her enthusiasm about even Seattle's Best Coffee's name. The name — Seattle — oh my gosh, not only will that translate in the U.S., but it will translate globally."

There are no plans to move Seattle's Best into foreign markets beyond Canada. Focus Brands operates Seattle's Best locations in a handful of countries, including Japan, an arrangement that was struck before Starbucks bought the company and does not bring it any money.

Gass' fun side comes out in all aspects of the brand. Seattle's Best business cards are now color coded to match its new coffee packages, and they include feisty quips like, "Your eyes won't open themselves" and "My other business card takes cream and sugar."

And she gets jazzed about the carton for Seattle's Best Coffee's new canned coffees. On the bottom are icons of a rain cloud, a coffee mug and a bicycle — along with a reminder that it's from Seattle, "where folks drink more coffee than water."

"I'm a zealot about the thoughtfulness of the details," Gass said. "To start over with a brand is so refreshing, because everything we do is an opportunity to connect with the consumer or a potential business partner."

Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or mallison@seattletimes.com

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