Onward by Howard Schultz

As I cruise around various book shops, normally at airports, I have developed a long queue of books to read. I am finding it more and more difficult to find books that enthrall me. So when my colleague, Jonny Kantey, brought me the latest book of Howard Schultz of Starbucks I jumped at the chance of finding a new autobiography that I could fall in love with.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks have fascinated me for some time. His first book, “Pour Your Heart into It” was an absolute winner for me, and I read it three times. Many of the ideas that Schultz espoused in his novel, resonated with me and I wrote down copious notes that I could apply in my own small business world.

I made my first visit to the shores of the United States in 1992, spending five fantastic weeks traveling between Boston, New York, Miami, Washington D.C, L.A, San Francisco and Seattle. 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.

When I went to Seattle, the home of the company, I was so impressed with the group that I have always made it a priority to visit Starbucks around the world and have been patiently waiting for them to come to South Africa.  Despite Starbuck’s 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’ve had a bad run since 2008 but then which company hasn’t?

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.

As CEO after becoming the Group’s Chairman. The real focus of the book is on the company’s ‘transformation’ from the lows of 2008 to its recovery.

So that’s why I was so happy when my copy of Schultz’s latest book landed up on my bedside table.

It has all the elements of a great story: Nice Jewish boy from the wrong side of the tracks transforms a small coffee company into a global retail giant. After making a killing and global success story, he steps up as chairman and the company continues to grow and expand until suddenly, as the world economy cools down, it hits a wall. Nice Jewish Boy 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. The first half was a little boring but 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 my well-tuned PR senses told me that a book written by the current CEO of a global brand should carry 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 shared his more vulnerable moments and often I actually felt quite sorry for the bloke, who is probably still a billionaire. He underlined 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 – even some of the world’s leading business people.

Shultz’s comes across as authentic, not shying away from self-criticism, accepting blame and acknowledging where he and the company has failed. He also doesn’t point any fingers at many of the people who took the company on the wrong path and firmly says that he was party to many of the poor decisions he made during their exuberant growth periods.

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 social responsibility abounds:

“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.”, says Schultz.

A subject which interested me is when he speaks in detail about the rise of social media and its growing importance to Starbucks, from the leaking of his internal memo, to the rise of Starbucks related blogs, and latterly how Starbucks is using social media to drive loyalty and revenue.

There were some areas which he glossed over, such as the transition of the incumbent CEO, and I felt that he sanitized a very difficult decision to get rid of the incumbent CEO. The machinations around this seemed a little dissatisfying and I would have liked to know the “real story”.

Lastly, the transition from a troubled global enterprise to successful recovery at the end of the book happens a little too quickly, and I’m not sure whether Schultz hasn’t jumped the gun by bringing the book out a little early because the US economy is still going to take a few hits. Although Starbucks sorted out many of the issues of a company that simply grew too quickly off a booming economy, they may still suffer a global slowdown in line with a renewed global economic recession.

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 with a business he loves and how he feels forced to drive large scale organisational change.

Howard Schultz and Starbucks are both intriguing subjects and his journey continues onward.