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October 22, 2011
Saving Starbucks and Himself
 
Howard Schultz’s new book, Onward, part memoir and part survival diary, says as much about business by what’s not said as it does in its gently sanitized prose.  Reading between the lines and then thinking about the written lines gives you a great insight into the single-mindedness of a successful entrepreneur and some serious recent war stories about Starbucks.
 
Many of us wonder about the guys that create great brands. What are they like? What makes them tick? Are they like you and me?
 
Some of them hit it big and sell out. Others stay around too long and are replaced by their boards because they run out of gas or don’t have the skills to manage an enterprise at scale. Still others grasp the tiller firmly and head into the wind. All the great American brands started as somebody’s idea. Howard Schultz documents how hard it can be to hold onto your idea in the face of great success.
 
In Howard’s case, he didn’t like what was happening to his baby and he engineered a return as CEO. This is his version of the rebirth of Starbucks and how he steered the ship through the recession. It’s a story about single-mindedness bordering on obsession. It’s a story about rescuing the brand he conceived and built. And it’s a unique insight into the man whose behavior illustrates his belief: “ When I wholeheartedly believe in something, I can be relentless in my enthusiasm, passion and drive to bring it to life.” 
 
At the end, the reader is left with mixed emotions. There’s an awful lot of “I saved the day” storytelling here. Yet on the flip side, without Howard, Starbucks could have easily become just another rudderless corporate behemoth dog-paddling through turbulent waters seeking to make a buck anyway it could.
 
The story of Starbucks’ woes and revival is a story of people, choices, timing and luck. Howard makes it clear that the role of a CEO is to set the vision, staff the team, push hard for innovation, and manage competitors, investors and employees. It’s a tough balancing act, especially when so many of the dependent variables are out of your hands.
 
Howard is remarkably candid, though not all that explicit, about the role test-and-learn plays in his success as well as his track record in picking key lieutenants or making new product choices. In his case, the hits outweigh the misses.
 
If you’ve ever lived through regime change, a major strategy reversal, or a highly-charged new product introduction, you can read the emotions, the anxieties, the play of personalities, the debates over research, the punishing logistics, and the battle for turf into his blandish descriptions of business situations.
 
Howard emerges as a likeable guy who most of us would be willing to follow.  He name drops a little, but he shares a lot of credit with subordinates and he is loyal to those who helped him along the way. He is good hearted but tough. His book will get you thinking.
 
ONWARD: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing Its Soul
By Howard Schultze with Joanne Gordon
Rodale Press
328 pp

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Danny Flamberg, EVP Managing Director of Digital Strategy and CRM at Publicis based in New York, has been building brands and building businesses for more than 30 years.Prior to joining Publicis, he led a successful global consulting group called Booster Rocket, as Managing Partner. Before becoming a consultant, he was Vice President of Global Marketing at SAP, SVP and Managing Director at Digitas in New York and Europe and President of Relationship Marketing at Amiratti Puris Lintas and Lowe Worldwide.
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