Orin C. Smith, the former Starbucks CEO and UW regent known for giving back to his hometown in southwestern Washington, died Thursday at age 75.
Mr. Smith grew up in Chehalis and remained dedicated to it, from donating to the city’s library to gifting $10 million last year to the area’s Student Achievement Initiative.
Mr. Smith graduated from Centralia College and the University of Washington before continuing on to Harvard University and eventually taking a job as an executive at Starbucks in 1990.
There, he became part of a well-known trio with Starbucks executives Howard Schultz and Howard Behar. The group was sometimes called H2O, Behar said, a testament to their close friendship and working relationship.
“I loved him right from the get-go,” said Behar, who started at the company just a few months before Mr. Smith. “He was a gentle guy and he had one of those really dry senses of humor.”
Mr. Smith was also the perfect balance for the two Howards, Behar said. Sometimes the pair would be caught in a heated discussion when Mr. Smith would step in and calm them both down.
Mr. Smith became CEO of Starbucks in 2000, following in Schultz’s footsteps, and became known as an executive who looked out for employees’ well-being. When Mr. Smith retired in 2005, the company celebrated him in front of more than 5,000 people at its annual shareholders meeting.
Schultz, now the executive chairman of Starbucks, said Mr. Smith taught him to “lead and to live with humanity.”
“He was the older brother I never had, always providing the wisdom and sage guidance to me and the company, while never seeking the stage nor the spotlight,” Schultz wrote in an email to Starbucks employees. “Always, shining the light and giving the credit to others. He made us all better, especially me. There would be no Starbucks of today, if not for Orin Smith.”
Mr. Smith was born in Ryderwood, Cowlitz County, and grew up in Chehalis in a family of humble means, according to The Chronicle in Centralia, which named Mr. Smith as Person of the Year in January. His mother would take him and his siblings to the library to borrow books.
When Mr. Smith became successful in business, he donated to the library, which is now named for his mother — the Vernetta Smith Timberland Chehalis Library.
He also supported the town’s aquatic center and the Chehalis Foundation. That organization was the recipient of his $10 million gift last year, a donation that will support a program that helps improve graduation rates for students in Chehalis public schools.
Mr. Smith was also committed to higher education and was appointed to the UW Board of Regents in late 2009.
“Orin combined kindness and humility with a drive for changing the world,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce wrote in a blog post Friday. “He inspired all those around him with his unyielding desire to do the most good.”
Later in life, Mr. Smith bought his mother a home, Behar said, and regularly visited her until her death in 2017.
At work, Mr. Smith was called “the tortoise” because of his deliberate decision-making habits, Behar said. He taught the rest of his team not to be in a rush and to take time to listen.
Even when he doled out critical feedback, Behar said, it was with the attitude of wanting to help people and better them.
Mr. Smith served on the board of the Walt Disney Co. beginning in 2006, where CEO Robert Iger said Mr. Smith helped lead the company through a major era of growth.
“I will always miss his wise counsel, but I’ll miss his friendship most of all,” Iger said in a statement. “Orin lived with great purpose, he acted with impeccable integrity, and he treated everyone with endless kindness.”
Former Starbucks executive Deidra Wager, who started at Starbucks in 1992, remembers Mr. Smith, who was then chief financial officer, at his desk, yellow legal pad in hand, doing manual profit and loss analysis with a pencil.
Later, when he became CEO, Wager said Mr. Smith spent hours preparing his first talk to her team. A natural introvert, Mr. Smith was nervous even though he had prepared for so long.
It was a success.
“He gave a speech on leadership and received a standing ovation from about 1,000 people,” Wager said. “He knocked it out of the ballpark.”
Behar also remembered Mr. Smith’s funny, behind-the-scenes attitude. Once, at a dinner with other Starbucks executives, Mr. Smith swiped an egg from the table, and placed it on the seat of a Starbucks investor. When he sat down, the table erupted in laughter — even from the investor.
“He always had a great laugh,” Behar said. “I’m going to miss a lot of things about Orin, but that’s one of the things I’m going to miss the most.”
Both Howards were able to visit Mr. Smith in the last few weeks. Mr. Smith was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last summer and was receiving treatment in Seattle, Palm Desert, California, and in his home of Jackson, Wyoming.
Mr. Smith is survived by his wife, Janet, her two sons and their families, his siblings Kevin Smith, Michael Smith and Vicki Ducharme and their families.
A memorial service for family will be held in Wyoming and another service will be held in Seattle at a yet-to-be-determined time. Donations can be made to the Jackson Community Foundation or the Chehalis Foundation.