Starbucks Corp. Chief Operating Officer Troy Alstead will go on an extended unpaid hiatus, leaving the world’s largest coffee-shop chain without a No. 2 to Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz.

Alstead’s last day will be March 1, Seattle-based Starbucks said in a statement. The company said it was a personal decision for Alstead, a 23-year veteran of the chain who was promoted from chief financial officer last year and took over day-to-day operations from Schultz.

The move raises questions about who will ultimately succeed Schultz. Until now, Alstead, 51, was the most likely candidate, according to Peter Saleh, an analyst at Telsey Advisory Group.

“Given how long he’s been there and how intimately he knows the business, my guess is he would have been next in line once Howard decided to retire,” Saleh said in an interview. “I don’t know that there’s anybody who’s lined up to fill his shoes that’s going to do as good of a job.”

Alstead has held various roles at the coffee chain, including its international business, where he focused on expansion in Europe, the Middle East and Africa as well as China. He joined Starbucks in 1992 when the company was closely held and operated about 100 stores in the U.S. and Canada.

Starbucks fell 1.5 percent to $81.25 as 5:20 p.m. in New York trading. The shares rose 4.7 percent last year.

“It’s a personal decision to take a break and spend more time with his family,” said Jim Olson, a Starbucks spokesman. “It’s clear we’re well positioned for the opportunities ahead and have a strong bench of leaders in place, so he decided now was the time to take this break.”

Alstead had planned a similar break in 2008, but was persuaded to stay at the company by Schultz, Olson said. That year, Schultz returned to Starbucks following his own hiatus. After eight years away, he took over the company two months after it reported its first quarterly drop in U.S. customer visits. Starbucks stock has surged more than fourfold with Schultz back at the helm.

Schultz will discuss transition plans for Alstead on the company’s earnings conference call on Jan. 22. He had handed over daily operations to Alstead in January 2013 to focus more on “next-generation retailing,” digital and mobile payments, the company said at the time.

“Troy is a beloved Starbucks partner and has played an invaluable role in our growth,” Schultz said in the statement today.

Alstead’s departure comes as Starbucks introduces new food and drinks to draw diners later in the day while competitors are pushing more breakfast fare. Revenue in the fiscal fourth quarter, which ended Sept. 28, rose 10 percent to $4.18 billion, trailing analysts estimates.

Alstead’s compensation for 2013, including salary and stock awards and options, was about $3 million, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Troy’s humanity and humility will be missed and we wish him the best,” Schultz said.

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