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Serious Reads: Onward, by Howard Schultz

20110618onward-book.jpgStarbucks is a chain that's seemingly on every street corner, in every mall, and increasingly, even in supermarkets. I have certainly patronized many a Starbucks in my day (I was hooked on Light Coffee Frappuccinos for most of high school). So reading Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz's new book, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for its Life Without Losing its Soul, provided some interesting insight into the caffeinated chain that once dominated my lunch hour.

Onward isn't so much a memoir as it is a reflection on the last four years in Starbucks' history. Schultz doesn't ponder how his childhood shaped his career as an entrepreneur, or even really talk much about how he grew Starbucks from a small Italian-influenced coffee outpost into a brand with 16,000 storefronts. Instead, the book is narrow in scope, discussing several high-profile changes that Starbucks made to its business model during and after the 2008 financial collapse.

Schultz suggests that his primary reasoning for closing nearly 600 stores and reorganizing the company's leadership in 2008 pertained to preserving the brand's authenticity and value. He laments that under the prior CEO, Jim Donald, too much growth had led to lower-performing storefronts and a loss of belief amongst Starbucks partners. (The word "partner" refers, in Starbucks-speak, to anyone employed by the company, from CEO to barista.) However, many of the other changes—including the Starbucks Reward card, the Pike Place blend, better-quality food offerings, and better social media presence—were obviously motivated by increasing revenue for the brand.

Surely Schultz had no interest in riding out the 2008 collapse without making some serious changes to the company's business model; a completely appropriate response for a flailing retail operation. But I wondered throughout the book if his insistence upon maintaining the belief and spirit of the Starbucks brand was perhaps a bit overblown. I found his tone inauthentic as he continually seemed to emphasize prioritizing values over economics.

The reader may struggle to sift through Schultz's relentless Starbucks promotion, which at times feels so blatant as to reach nearly propagandist proportions. Schultz is intent upon his audience understanding that all of his actions—including displacing Starbucks's prior CEO, and making several major decisions about the future of the company during secret weekend meetings at his home—were in pursuit of Starbucks's core values.

These values, as were detailed in nearly every chapter of this 32-chapter book, include providing excellent benefits to all employees, only using the best quality coffee beans, prioritizing customer service and efficiency, and preserving an "authentic" coffee shop experience from storefront to storefront. Whether or not Starbucks has achieved these goals through the reforms implemented in the past few years is ultimately up to the consumer, not Schultz, to decide.

Schultz is an amiable writer, but his lofty, dramatic tone makes this book a bit of a dense, tiring read. I appreciated some insight into the changes I saw being implemented at Starbucks when I was a frequent patron (admittedly, I no longer am). And if you are intrigued by the Starbucks brand and its decision-making process, then this book is a must-read purely for its behind-the-scenes look at the company. But if you're already prone to anti-Starbucks rants and don't want to hear two words about how the chain preserves the feel of an authentic Italian espresso shop, Onward will drive you to rage rather than conversion.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.

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