Onward – The marching beat to which Horward Schultz, the founder, president, chairman and CEO of Starbucks Coffee orchestrated a comeback of the beloved coffee brand in the US. It is also the name of book that tells the story. Having just completed it, I thought I might just put down a few reflections that I could share.
To begin with, the book is an easy read, written in a near conversational style and telling a fantastic story of a has-been making his comeback. As the introduction states, the book is a story of the turnaround at Starbucks from the year before the 2008 recession to the year 2010.
With a brief introduction to the history of Starbucks, Horward Schultz jumps forward to a few months before he returned to Starbucks as CEO after having relinquished the post when he became the chairman.What follows is the story of the journey of a company whom most critics dubbed as having its best years behind it to its return as one of the top retailers of coffee in a difficult economy.
Personally, I am not a big coffee shop fan. I am generally slow to new concepts (it took me ages to embrace facebook) and it did take me a while to warm up to the idea. As a student in India the high cost of coffee deterred me and there was always a lower cost option to hangout. But as time passed and friends grew more distant due to work and marriage, coffee shops like Coffee Day in India became an ideal venue to meet.
After reading the book Onward, I realized that Starbucks was the original coffee retailer that introduced the world to the now ubiquitous coffee shop as a lifestyle choice. Starbucks became an everyday ritual with which Americans started their day, an oasis for the afternoons and a mecca for conversation in the evenings.
The real differentiator that made this possible is the Starbucks Experience as its founder likes to call it. For many a coffee shop is not just about the coffee but the atmosphere that the store provides. While many retailers since have attempted to recreate such an experience with varying amounts of success, the coffee shop has become an indispensible element of modern life for the young and the old.
So how did it happen?
Well some of the clues are available in the book Onward. Howard Schultz might be a man of great business acumen however it is the human element that he brings to the table which permeates throughout the storytelling that seems to be his greatest strength. But before all that, there is passion. It is apparent from the book that the goal for him is the Starbucks experience. That the experience is monetized and generates profits in the millions is a separate story.
That Starbuck is at the end of the day a corporate entity that is answerable to its shareholders and will do what is necessary to keep generating profits is relegated to second place in the book. Howard Schultz tries to explain the human side of Starbucks, where the employees are called partners and are given stock options and health coverage from the early days of the company. A company where the raw materials are sourced ethically and in an environmentally friendly way. A company where profits and revenues are shared with those who need it like through their commitment to Bono’s RED campaign.
The book does talk about the difficult decisions made in closing stores and letting people go. Yet this kept to a minimum and the focus of the book is always Onward and the turnaround that is to come in the near future . While it makes a compelling story with an underdog and everything, for me the book is a description of a corporation that sells high priced and mostly unhealthy coffee and whose sales depend on consumers making a habit of consuming it.
But that’s just me personally. I think coffee shops are great places to hang out with friends if you aren’t looking for meeting up for dinner but I don’t agree that the coffee with high sugar content as a habit is great for health or the budget. Yet it isn’t just about the coffee but the whole experience which matters. In Howard Schultz‘s own words, Starbucks is not a luxury but an affordable necessity.
Don’t get me wrong though. If one is fair to Starbucks, they have initiated a host ofprograms that ensure that they are both planet and employee friendly. My grouse is not against the author or Starbucks per se. However I’m generally wary of corporations and the way they function within the economy – often with a tunnel minded vision to make more profits while disregarding the planet and its population.
Starbucks might honestly be an outlier in terms of its initiatives to source ethical coffee and provide employee benefits over and above the basics most company offer. But then the book is a description by the author and even though it offers some selected bouquets and brickbats from during its turnaround phase, I would take it with a pinch of salt. After all one may assume that the CEO would show a hint of bias in trying to show Starbucks in a favourable light.
To end some good corporate leadership advice distilled from the book.
As an entrepreneur be passionate about some part of the business, if not all of it. One may essentially not like one’s job wholly but would still find parts of it that they love and can really be good at.
- Communicate – If nothing else, the founder of Starbucks is a great communicator getting across ideas in a way people would listen and respond to – if he says so himself
- Have a great team – this I think is necessary as a leader, a because you aren’t going to know how to be good at every aspect of the job and b because even if you did you might not like doing it. (See point 1)
So those are my musings on the book.
Now I’m off to get my frappucino fix. J
Disclaimer or at this point a disclosure – I have been to Starbucks only once so far. I can only remember a Carrot cake I had there and not the drink