Starbucks shares plunge 10% as CEO Johnson says the company needs to be more disciplined

Key Points
  • Starbucks plans to close more than 150 company-owned stores next year and decelerate the number of licensed store openings.
  • CEO Kevin Johnson said that Starbucks drives more shareholder value with its company-owned locations than its licensed stores.
  • The coffee giant cut its sales forecast for fiscal third-quarter same-store sales growth.
Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson on growth plans

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson admitted Wednesday that the coffee chain has seen growth slow over the past two to three years and that it will take discipline to get things back on track.

"I think we've got to be much more disciplined in setting our priorities," Johnson said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" on Wednesday. "We've got to be more data driven in terms of how we're allocating resources and tuning the model. We have to be more agile as innovators. We set the stage for that transition to a company that is focused on growth and scale."

Late Tuesday, Starbucks cut its forecast for fiscal third-quarter same-store sales growth. Starbucks shares fell in after-hours trading Tuesday on that news and plans to scale back store growth, and continued to sink Wednesday. The stock was down more than 10 percent midafternoon, hitting a 52-week low.

Starbucks said it would slow the number of licensed stores it opens and close underperforming company-operated locations in densely populated areas. The company historically closes about 50 of these stores annually, however in 2019 it expects to shutter about 150 stores.

Johnson said Starbucks drives more shareholder value with its company-owned locations than its licensed stores.

In addition, Starbucks expects to return about $25 billion in cash to shareholders in the form of share buybacks and dividends through 2020. This is a $10 billion increase from the forecast the company set last November. Starbucks will hike its quarterly dividend by 20 percent.

"We see last night's pivot to more measured unit growth in the U.S., a greater focus on G&A cost containment, and increased capital return targets as evidence that [Starbucks'] management is addressing the new point in its growth curve with a more appropriate strategy," John Zolidis, president of Quo Vadis Capital, wrote in a research note Wednesday.

"Clearly the performance we've delivered has not met my expectations," Johnson said. "It hasn't met our shareholder expectations. I'm accountable to fix it. Now, I said that yesterday and I believe that. I believe the plan we put out yesterday and shared with our investors is the right plan for the company. Now, Starbucks has been through these ebbs and flows before and we always get through them. We're going to get through this one, as well."

In the most recent quarter, Starbucks topped same-store sales expectations, but traffic remained flat. The beat had been viewed positively as it followed five straight quarters of misses.

Watch CNBC's full exclusive interview with Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson

The coffee giant has been working on a number of initiatives to turn around these weak sales, including offering more cold beverages, revamping its rewards program and increasing its marketing efforts to non-Starbucks card holders. The company expects these new digital efforts to contribute 1 to 2 percent to same-store sales in the Americas in 2019.

"What we're doing is using those relationships, and our personalization engine, to really drive the kinds of offers and promotions to those customers," Johnson said of the company's digital strategy. "That's a big one. We've had competitors that will focus more on a value proposition."

Since April, Starbucks has added 5 million new digital customers and 2 million active Starbucks Rewards members, up 13 percent from a year ago.

Johnson became CEO April 2017, succeeding Howard Schultz, who shifted his focus to the company's Roastery and Reserve Bars and took the title of executive chairman. Earlier this month, Schultz said he would be stepping away from the company completely, effective June 26.

"This is where I'm taking the company," Johnson said. "And, you know, whether Howard [Schultz] is here or not, I'm the CEO and I'm accountable for that."