For some time a book about Starbucks – ‘Everything But the Coffee’ – has sat upon the ‘to read’ pile on my desk. Today in Milan I had the opportunity to hear the company’s executive chairman, Howard Schultz, speak, and I can now guarantee that the very next book of ANY kind that I’ll be reading will be about Starbucks. (Schultz has also written about his experiences at Starbucks – these are going on the must-read list.)
Starbucks has always posed a bit of a conundrum for me, as I prefer the artisan, bespoke, pokey little cafes of my homeland and have avoided the ubiquitous Starbucks with its odd collections of beverages with slightly weird names. Overseas travels have made me seek out the familiar from time-to-time and, like McDonalds, Starbucks represents the smells, sights and language of the familiar (coupled with free wi-fi).
I had to reflect on my bias after hearing Schultz speak of the commitment he has to the teams of people who work for/with him, however. His earnest drive to make the world a better place could be sceptically received but his passion for a values-based business won me over.
To illustrate, Schultz described an incident during the 2008 GFC when a shareholder contacted him and suggested that by removing Starbucks-provided health insurance the company could avoid a potential financial failure. Schultz refused the suggestion. By doing so, he put his concern and commitment for his staff above business, a risky position considering that the company’s failure would make health insurance moot. Instead he sent a signal to the company that they would continue to trade and that the human cost of financial stability was too high. His position’s clearly paid off, as Starbucks continues to go from strength to strength.
Sitting in the audience listening to someone who fought for a better life for the people in his company was refreshing and humbling in a time when profit seems to triumph over most things, often even food safety. Bravo Mr Schultz, the standing ovation you received was appropriate.
Just don’t expect me to utter the word ‘frappuccino’ … anywhere, or anytime.