By Deborah Mary Sophia
(Reuters) -Starbucks said former CEO Howard Schultz is stepping down from its board, marking his exit from leadership at the company he helped transform into a coffee behemoth that made venti cappuccinos a global phenomenon.
The retirement comes roughly five months after a new CEO took charge and amid a surge in union organizing at the company's U.S. cafes. Organizers say union supporters were illegally fired while the company has denied the allegations.
Schultz last year called unions a "third party" that the employees "wouldn't need," adding that the company was "in a battle for the hearts and minds of our people."
In March, Schultz defended himself and the company against allegations of "union busting" at a U.S. Senate committee hearing.
During his 41-year association, Schultz played a crucial role in taking Starbucks from a small company selling only whole beans to a global coffeehouse chain with more than 36,000 stores in 86 markets.
Schultz, 70, stepped down as CEO in March after he returned to the helm for the third time. He oversaw a major revamp in technology at Starbucks' stores during his latest stint, doubling down on equipment and employee training to improve service.
Schultz will become lifelong chairman emeritus following the retirement.
"I look forward to supporting this next generation of leaders to steward Starbucks into the future as a customer, supporter and advocate in my role as chairman emeritus," Schultz said.
The honorary title typically brings no official position on the board and does not hold any voting power, attendance or other rights.
Wall Street analysts said the move did not come as a surprise.
"With the executive team and board both built out and aligned to longer-term strategic goals, it makes sense that (Schultz) could confidently take a step back," Stephens analyst Joshua Long said.
The company elected Wei Zhang as the ninth director on its board, effective Oct. 1. Zhang was most recently senior adviser to the Alibaba Group, and previously led Alibaba Pictures Group.
Other members on the board include Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and former Domino's Pizza boss Richard Allison.
(Reporting by Deborah Sophia in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)