Women to Watch 2007

Michelle Gass

Starbucks Corp.

By Published on .

NEXT: Tamara Ingram

Call her a bull in a coffee shop.

As senior VP-chief merchant, global product for Starbucks Corp., Michelle Gass presides over the worldwide product and development teams for 250 products and most of the company's revenue. It's a massive challenge as the chain works to rein in the commoditization famously outlined in a recent company memo from Chairman Howard Schultz.

Michelle Gass, senior VP-chief merchant, global product, Starbucks Corp.

"This is just the beginning of the journey for Michelle," says Jim Donald, Starbucks president-CEO, who dismisses the memo as business as usual. "Of all things," he says, Ms. Gass "has a very high sense of urgency." Such motivation helped her drive Frappuccino from a two-flavor novelty at the Seattle-based coffee chain into a $2 billion brand.

In talking with customers, she realized they were using the creamy drinks more as a mini-escape than as a coffee break. But when it came to how the drinks were served and marketed, "there was a pretty big disconnect," says the 39-year-old Maine native who holds a degree in chemical engineering and an MBA. As with poorly shot vacation photos, the full experience was lost in the visual.

When she prepared to launch the Caramel Frappuccino, Ms. Gass envisioned a bigger potential for the beverage. To create an emotional indulgence factor, she proposed adding a caramel drizzle and domed lid to dress up the drink and switching the generic red straw to green to reinforce the brand iconography.

These seemingly small changes became a big battle with baristas and operations management who argued they would complicate operations and slow service. Amid a heated debate with a ranking executive, Ms. Gass refused to launch without the drizzle or domed lid.

"If you don't do it in its full concept, then you can't have it," Ms. Gass asserted. She says: "I'm a quantitative person, but when it comes to decisions and conviction, I'm more about passion and gut. If you take the easy road all the time, if you go with 'Squirt a little bit of syrup in it,' it might be a hit but won't be a big innovation. If we had not done that, I don't know if we'd have the Frappuccino business we have today."

"She's smart enough to recognize that we've got 13,000 focus groups that take place in our stores every day, and listens to what she hears and modifies appropriately," says Jim Alling, president-Starbucks Coffee U.S.

Headline-grabbing memo aside, Ms. Gass considers food to be her biggest challenge. "We're still figuring that out," she says. "It's going to be a journey, but it's a key priority for us. For me, food is the next Frappuccino."
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