Bold Yet Frothy

    Howard Schultz of East Hampton, the author of “Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life Without Losing Its Soul” and chief executive officer of Starbucks, has saved the coffee company from the lows it hit in 2008 by his return to active service and brought it once again to be one of the world’s most miraculous success stories.
    There is also little doubt that Starbucks itself is a company that delves deeply into fair trade and fair practices worldwide, and much of its success is due to Mr. Schultz’s enthusiasm and involvement since he purchased the small Seattle-based coffee business three decades ago.
    It also offers a satisfying cup of joe.
    It would be nice to say that “Onward” offers an equally satisfying read, but it doesn’t deliver the goods. The book is about as confusing as a half caff, half decaf mocha soy Americano with extra foam.
    “Onward” offers only the shortest of outlines on how Starbucks began. Mr. Schultz’s first book, “Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time,” must contain greater detail on the humble beginnings of the company, because one would have to peer very hard to find anything humble here. In many ways, the book seems to be a love letter to Mr. Schultz by Mr. Schultz, describing the decisions he made, the memos he wrote, the speeches he gave, and the people who didn’t believe he could do it when he returned as Starbucks’s ceo.
    As to the title “ceo”; yes, Virginia, that’s how they roll, Starbucks-style. All small letters, no caps, to put everyone on an equal footing.
    The book is liberally sprinkled with such cases of corporate modesty and heartfelt justifications of why certain people had to get the boot and Mr. Schultz had to come back to Starbucks to once again steer the foundering S.S. Java off the shoals of too-much-too-soon and out again into the open seas of slow-and-steady.
    “Onward” is part biography, part business book, part fiction (Mr. Schultz frequently sits back in his chair or heaves a sigh before a big decision), and part Starbucks commercial.
    Much of the fault for “Onward”’s confusing narrative must fall squarely in the laps of the editors. Many of the passages in the book reek of déja vu, as the same points are driven home again and again and again: a series of decisions that Mr. Schultz made to put himself once again in the driver’s seat of Starbucks, featuring his earnest mission statements and memos to other members of the team and a lot of heavy-lies-the-head-that-wears-the-crown stuff.

Howard Schultz
Rodale, $25.99

    Mr. Schultz honestly shoulders responsibility for some of the Starbucks ideas that didn’t fly, but his manner leaves the reader with the feeling that seppuku might be the only honorable way. Intense and sincere, he is. Funny and self-deprecating, he ain’t.
    Thinking that perhaps I missed something, I read the book twice. Here’s a section. You make the call.
    Pouring espresso is an art, one that requires the barista to care about the quality of the beverage. If the barista only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso that is too weak or too bitter, then Starbucks has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago: inspire the human spirit. I realize this is a lofty mission for a cup of coffee, but this is what merchants do. We take the ordinary — a shoe, a knife — and give it new life, believing that what we create has the potential to touch others’ lives because it touched ours.
    Starbucks has always been about so much more than coffee. But without great coffee, we have no reason to exist.
    “We looked at all the options,” the team seated around me said. “The only way to retrain everyone by March is to close our stores, all at once.”
    I sat back in my chair. It would be a powerful statement, but no retailer had ever done such a thing. “That’s a big idea,” I replied, considering the risks. Starbucks would lose several million dollars in sales and labor costs. That would be unavoidable. Competitors would capitalize on our absence and try to lure away our customers. Critics would gloat, cynics would smirk, and the always-unpredictable media scrutiny could be humiliating. On Wall Street, our stock could sink even lower. Most dangerous of all, such a massive retraining event would be perceived as our own admission that Starbucks was no longer good enough. But if I was honest with myself, I knew that that was the truth.
    I pursed my lips and looked at the team. “Let’s do it.”
There is a word that comes to my mind when I think about our company and our people. That word is “love.” I love Starbucks because everything we’ve tried to do is steeped in humanity.

    Oh boy.
    Howard Schultz seems like a good guy. “Onward” just isn’t a very good read.

    “Onward” was written with Joanne Gordon, a former Forbes magazine reporter and contributing editor.