Review: Howard Schultz tells story of Starbucks turnaround in newest book "Onward"
Howard Schultz is a showman at heart, and the new book about Starbucks sometimes reads like a series of presentations he gave to employees, analysts and shareholders during the turnaround. He quotes himself extensively.
Seattle Times business reporter
Howard Schultz book eventGreater Seattle Chamber of Commerce
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has a busy month. He hosts Starbucks' annual shareholders meeting Wednesday; his new book, "Onward," comes out March 29; and he discusses it at this Chamber event:
When: noon to 1:30 p.m. April 7.
Where: The Fairmont Olympic Hotel, Spanish Ballroom, 411 University St., Seattle
Cost: Members $65 per person ($70 after April 5); nonmembers, $70 ($75 after April 5).
To register: Call 206-389-7215, email Larry Pike at email@example.com, or register online at
Book review |
One of Howard Schultz's most appealing traits is his ability to be human, to frankly own both successes and mistakes with a gee-whiz candor more often associated with Southerners than native New Yorkers.
Unlike most Fortune 500 CEOs, he talks about his feelings and admits taking things personally.
When he walked onstage for Starbucks' annual shareholders meeting at McCaw Hall in early 2008, shortly after he resumed taking the helm of a troubled coffee chain, Schultz was floored by the long ovation.
"Wow. I really didn't know what to expect," he said, and admitted to 6,000 employees and investors that "we have kind of lost our edge."
Three years later, Starbucks' edge is back — along with its profits and stock price.
Schultz's book about the journey, "Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul" (Rodale, $25.99), comes out next Tuesday. His co-author is Joanne Gordon, a former Forbes writer and nonfiction author who lives in Seattle.
The tale of a high-profile corporate turnaround mixed with a bit of soul-baring by Schultz, it will appeal to business types but probably not to the average latte drinker.
"Onward" is divided into five parts titled "love," "confidence," "pain," "hope" and "courage."
It recaps events that Starbucks followers know well, such as Schultz's Valentine's Day 2007 memo to executives worrying about the soul of the company; the decision to close hundreds of stores and lay off thousands of workers; and the introduction of Starbucks' instant coffee.
Familiar scenes — like Schultz's publicly expressed desire to take a comeback page from computer-company founder Michael Dell — are peppered with insider details, like the image of Schultz and Dell riding bicycles together along the Kona coast in Hawaii.
But the juicy parts feature Schultz in full confession mode — about his anger at the way Starbucks sandwiches used to smell up its stores, about a roller-coaster of emotion that he tried to hide from employees who needed to see his confidence, and about customers.
"Whenever I see someone carrying a cup of coffee from a Starbucks competitor, whether it's an independent coffee shop or a fast-food chain, I take their decision not to come to Starbucks personally," he writes. "I wonder what I, as Starbucks' chairman and ceo [sic], might have done to keep them away and what I might do to encourage them to come back or to try us for the first time."
Schultz is hardly insecure.
The man who audaciously built a small Seattle coffee roaster into the world's largest coffee-shop chain — at times against great odds, as documented in his 1997 book, "Pour Your Heart Into It" — is as bold as the aged Sumatran coffee he adores.
It could be hard-won confidence that fuels Schultz's open, earnest vibe. It also could be that he knows how appealing it is, whether he is talking to one person or thousands.
Schultz is a showman at heart, and the new book sometimes reads like a series of presentations he gave to employees, analysts and shareholders during the turnaround. He quotes himself extensively.
There are even celebrity appearances, most notably by Bono at a conference of Starbucks' top 10,000 managers in New Orleans. Even Bono is quoted at length, saying that people want to do business with companies they trust.
The trust factor was not new to Schultz, who has long been proud of Starbucks' values — including offering health insurance to most employees — but the company began using it to fight back against competitors.
"We're being squeezed from the bottom by fast-food brands like McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, and from the top by high-end independent coffee shops. We have to make certain we don't get caught in the middle," he told the top brass at advertising giant BBDO.
He was particularly galled by a McDonald's billboard spouting "Four bucks is dumb" near Starbucks' headquarters.
The result was the coffee chain's first widespread advertising campaign, which began with a commercial on "Saturday Night Live" just before the 2008 presidential election asking, "What if we cared all of the time the way we care some of the time?"
Possibly the most poignant chapter in "Onward" is the one called "Balance." It's in the last section, "Courage," and focuses on Starbucks' efforts to be more creative with store design and more efficient about making drinks.
Schultz writes about Starbucks stores striving to feel small as the company grows, and about balancing efficiency with romance.
As usual, he is most eloquent when describing the romance.
The chapter begins with Schultz spending an afternoon with a cutlery merchant in Milan, Italy, an elderly man whose only store captivated him. He was embarrassed to tell Aldo Lorenzi that his business — Starbucks — had 16,000 stores. (Now that number is above 17,000, although none is in Italy.)
Still, Schultz loves the book Lorenzi wrote and gave him in an English translation, "That Shop in Via Montenapoleone." He keeps it on his desk, travels with it and shares it with friends and co-workers.
Schultz finds a kinship in their language, and quotes Lorenzi: "I want to write pages that have their own poetics about the things I make or do, but at the same time I want them to be like the pages of a manual, down-to-earth instructions, exact and useful information about our job."
Just as the espresso bars of Italy once inspired Schultz to sell espresso drinks back home, an Italian knife retailer had found his core.
"At the very heart of being a merchant," Schultz writes, "is a desire to tell a story by making sensory, emotional connections. Once, twice or 16,000 times."
Melissa Allison: 206-464-3312 or firstname.lastname@example.org
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.
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