I limit the number of books I agree to review because I always have a long queue of books to read, and I find that agreeing to review a book changes my relationship with it from being a joy of exploration, to yet another task to be completed – a task that’s now four months overdue…
However, when Katarina Hicks from Fortier Public Relations got in touch about the latest Howard Schultz book – Onward – I made an exception.
Mr. Schultz and Starbucks have fascinated me for some time.
It’s a little known fact that I made my first visit to the shores of the continental United States in 1994, spending two fantastic weeks travelling between Boston, New York, Baltimore and Washington D.C. It was the first time I came across a Starbucks store and I was hooked immediately. It was cool, yet functional, stylish yet welcoming, and they also sold good coffee.
I was so impressed that when I returned to Ireland I made the Starbucks Coffee Company the offer of a lifetime. I wrote to them and gave them the opportunity to leverage the skills and experience of a twenty something – with no experience of retail, no knowledge of running a business, but someone who appreciated a good cup of coffee – by giving me the exclusive Starbucks franchise in Ireland. Amazingly they turned down this very kind offer but they did take the time to respond and I recently discovered that their first overseas store wasn’t opened until 1996 in Japan and of course it wasn’t a franchise.
Despite Starbuck’s foolish and potentially catastrophic failure to let me bring their coffee to Ireland I have long admired the company. For me they are a company that has that rare combination of a strong focus on innovation – across products and services – and a real commitment to corporate social responsibility – just think of the health, pension and stock benefits they pioneered for part-time staff. And yes I know they’re not perfect, but then who is?
So that’s a very long preamble about why I accepted the offer to review the book, and as expected I saw a number of self-imposed deadlines passing by.
Onward provides a brief potted history of Starbucks but primarily focuses on the company’s stumble in 2008 and Howard Schultz’s decision to return to the company as CEO eight or so years after he became chairman.
The real focus of the book is on the company’s ‘transformation’ from the lows of 2008 to its recovery.
It has all the elements of a great story. Man transforms a small Seattle coffee company into a global retail powerhouse. He steps upstairs as chairman and the company continues to grow and expand until suddenly, eight years later, it hits a wall. Man returns to salvage his life’s work.
It’s the perfect set up.
I have to admit it took me a lot longer to get into this book than I expected. However, in the end my perseverance was worth it. The second half of the book moves along at a faster pace and provides a more interesting insight into both the company, including decisions that were taken to address the company’s stalled growth and profitability, and a personal view of the events from the returned CEO.
Of course one’s fine-tuned PR senses tell you that a book co-written by the current CEO of a global brand and listed public company carries a health warning. You’re not getting the unvarnished inside track, but that doesn’t mean the book isn’t interesting and a worthwhile read, in fact I think it is.
Schultz deserves great credit for sharing his more vulnerable moments and underlining the importance for everyone to keep growing and learning, to ask others for help and listen to advice. That’s a great message; I think we all sometimes forget that we don’t have all the answers.
While the book is co-authored by Joanne Gordon, Mr. Shultz’s voice is loud and clear and he comes across as authentic, not shying away from self-criticism, accepting blame and acknowledging where he and the company have failed.
Schultz takes you on the voyage of recovery, from difficult decision to slash costs through closing stores and redundancies, to increasing productivity, believing in the potential of innovation to drive revenue and ultimately how the company regained profitability and growth.
Aside from the day-to-day struggles of correcting the company’s course, as you’d expect with Starbucks corporate social responsibility is front and center. To quote Schultz:
“Starbuck’s mission from the beginning was to build a different kinds of company, one that would achieve a healthy balance between profit and social conscience.”
He provides some interesting insights into the work of the Starbucks Foundation and like every executive at every major corporation that has long standing CSR commitments, he struggles with how to educate and inform people about the breadth of activities the company supports.
He talks in detail about the rise of social media and its growing importance to Starbucks, from the leaking of his internal memo (see below), to the rise of Starbucks related blogs and latterly how Starbucks is using social media to drive loyalty and revenue.
“More than just a marketing tool, our digital presence further engages our customers, which is an essential element in our growth model moving forward.”
There are a few weaknesses in the book.
Reading it there were a number of times, for me anyway, you really have to suspend disbelief. For example Mr. Schultz’s surprise that a company memo he wrote in 2007 detailing the company’s shortcomings and the challenges they faced was leaked externally. Now you may have to accept his word on this, but I struggle to understand how anyone could be surprised that a critical memo from the President of a high profile global brand wouldn’t make it outside the company. The leaking of such communications has been rife since the late 1990s and it’s now expected that sensitive internal communications will reach audiences outside the organization. If I were a more cynical person I might suggest that the memo was purposely leaked to raise awareness of, and pressure around, the issues facing the management team. But of course I’m not cynical at all.
There are other areas which are glossed over, such as the transition of the incumbent CEO, and while you can understand why, it’s still a little dissatisfying.
Lastly the transition from troubled global enterprise to successful recovery at the end of the book happens a little too quickly, and while you can piece together the various elements that heralded the transition, it seems a little abrupt or maybe even accidental to me. It’s a little jarring.
These are pretty minor criticisms. I recommend this book for anyone interested in getting an inside view on the turnaround of a global brand and the very personal story of how a founding father returns to fix what’s gone wrong and drive large scale organizational change.
Howard Schultz and Starbucks are both intriguing subjects and the journey continues onward.
Disclosure: Fortier Public Relations provided me with a review copy of Onward on behalf of the publishers Rodale.