Apr 05, 2011, 06:23AM

An Act for a New Global Morality

Onward, the new book by Starbucks’ chairman, reminds you why upper management is always a drag.

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Howard Schultz has an odd term for Bono. He doesn’t quite call him a friend; instead it’s “Bono is someone I consider a friend.” Schultz is the largest shareholder of Starbucks, but he doesn’t want to presume. Even this high up, there are differences of rank.

Schultz is an entrepreneur-visionary and commands the world’s premier infrastructure for supplying individuals with retail coffee. But Bono is a star. If Bono the icon shows up, the Starbucks leadership conference is not just a mass get-together of the chain’s executives and outlet managers (“partners,” in the company’s terminology). It makes the jump and becomes a global something or other, a moment in the upward climb of the species. In return, Bono’s favorite charity gets five percent of that year’s sales for Starbucks’ “three holiday drinks,” as Schultz puts it in Onward.

I would guess not many people are reading the book. Nobody even wrote it; somebody signed off on the thing, that’s all. In one sentence, about villagers in Rwanda, Schultz talks about their “palpable combination of desperation and fortitude and hope and self-reliance.” Then: “I knew that when Starbucks’s almost 8,000 store managers, 700 district managers, 120 regular directors, 250 international partners, dozens of senior leaders and support staff converged on,” etc. We’re supposed to believe that in one sentence a human being is talking about the feelings stirred in him by survivors of genocide, and that in the next sentence he’s very concerned about letting us know exactly how many “regular directors” made it to the Starbucks conference. That’s not prose, it’s a collision of press releases.

Prose samples. An ex-Starbucks executive has a “fierce, quantitative understanding of the world.” On the reasons for the global leadership conference: “I needed an unfiltered venue for expressing my empathy about all that we were asking our partners to do.” Why hold it in New Orleans? “At that time, no other US city’s experience seemed like such a natural extension of our values as well as our crucible. Historically there is a coffee connection.” He goes on to describe Katrina as if no one had ever heard of it. Schultz takes the same tack when discussing the you-should-vote ad Starbucks placed on Saturday Night Live. The program becomes “fast-paced late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live,” or words to that effect.

Schultz is proudest of a memo he wrote raising the alarm about “the commoditization of our brand.” A brand starts out as a commodity and stays that way as long as it’s in business. You might as well talk about the wettification of a liquid.

Bono’s message. What did he have to say at the New Orleans global leadership conference? Here’s a bit: “Brand value will converge to create a new business model that unites commerce and compassion.” He means that Starbucks will attract customers by acquiring a reputation for good works. The average consumer will feel sure that the coffee beans came from a farmer who wasn’t starving, and maybe a share of the purchase will go to a global charity. Therefore, a few dollars spent at Starbucks leaves the world a little better off. Consuming becomes a form of activism, a nickel’s-worth of activism that adds up, presumably, to hundreds of millions spent in the right place, but whose moral agency is split among so many people that it’s no more than a twitch, a collective shrug at the counter: Yeah, Gingersnap Latte, why not?

Because he’s an icon, Bono can provide a seal of approval. If Bono says buying this drink is an act for the new global morality, then maybe it is. We don’t know where the money is going; we just know that the Third World exists and that populations we’ve never seen live in need of something or other, whatever it is that Bono is in charge of bringing to them. If Bono likes Starbucks, then we can assume the money is going where it should. Presumably he looks into these things. Or, then again, maybe the gig was just a corporate speaking assignment. The fee went to the speaker’s favorite charity by means of the holiday-drink tithe. In return the company received endorsement by association, with the hint that its practices represented a force for global uplift. Maybe their practices are really just passable and the company bought itself an upgrade in moral prestige by means of the Bono charity deal.  

Third place. I’ve been in a few Starbucks and they were just fine, but fine in the same way as all other chain cafes and probably a lot of their non-chain competitors. The staff is friendly and acknowledges regulars, and you can sit around comfortably and spend all day if you keep your voice low. Because, and this is key, the big appeal is really that people, meaning the customers, are around each other and can talk.

I don’t think we used to have that when I was a kid. Coffee shops, in the form they took back then, had regulars, but the regulars had to lean over table partitions or swivel around on counter stools. People had to know each other pretty well before getting into a conversation. We’re lucky that today there are so many commercial establishments designed for people to hang out face to face or sitting alongside each other.

Going by Schultz’s book, he’s behind all that. I can’t say one way or the other, but he tells how he paid a business visit to Italy in the mid-1980s and saw a neighborhood espresso bar in action. An old man with the best hands you ever saw put together espressos for people he had known his whole life. Schultz wanted to bring that to the United States, a nation without much in the way of age-old crafts or time-rooted communities.

Schultz started by imitating superficial markings: His first coffee bar was called Il Giornale and had Italian-themed décor. But on acquiring Starbucks (four or five stores for about $4 million, the deal taking place in 1987), Schultz downplayed the Italian-ness and concentrated on giving customers a place that was really a place, one where they could make eye contact with the staff and each other.

Typically, Schultz attributes much of the resulting effect to unimportant grace notes of his own devising. He made sure the places had coffee beans out in the open so customers could walk in the door and get a whiff. That’s a good idea, but I don’t get any such smell at my usual cafes and don’t miss it. The trick is really to have employees willing to scoop the stuff out of bins when they could be selling it in pre-sealed bags. They’re earning a little above minimum wage and that’s all, but they’ll still go to the trouble. I see this as a human trait and not the result of Starbucks management practices.

But Schultz, apparently, was the man who capitalized on this trait so as to create a mass means of giving customers the sense they had a place to be. So he’s a billionaire and has done the population a favor. The tragedy is that he is so awful. Judging by this book, he is a human refracted away from himself. He can’t say anything straight and can’t look at a page and see what’s in front of him. (Even the book’s epigraph, its opening high-minded quote, is screwy. It’s set all italic and is therefore unreadable.) Nor can he hire anyone capable of these things. He exists in a dimension where clarity and meaning don’t exist, a late-capitalist reality ripple accessible only at the world’s heights, where institutions are commanded.

Schultz’s folly. A boss of the upper realms commands the resources of an empire. He spends them on getting the world into just the shape he likes. The job is impossible, so he settles on a fantasy fulfillment. The world will appear to be the way he likes it. First, of course, it’s a world in which he is central. Therefore his state of mind is central to how his company is doing. Then, subsidiary but important, there is the state of mind of the people around him, the executives. They’re there to be led, meaning to have their state of mind adjusted by the chief. Finally, there is the mass of employees, and their state of mind is overwhelmingly important, like the state of the federal deficit, but also remote.

A few years ago Starbucks fell into a slump. Onward is about the pageants Schultz staged on the way to pulling the chain out of its slump. The book will mention demurely that “Starbucks’s promotions were not always strategically synchronized,” but you won’t find out how this came about or what Schultz did about it. Instead you get the lowdown on the Beatles summit that Schultz put on to get the top ranks juiced again. He hired SYPartners to organize a retreat (“‘Put down your pens. Don’t take notes. Just listen,’ I instructed after we shook hands”) and they came up with a spectacle where an expensive conference room was jammed with Beatles posters, not posters on the walls but scattered across the floor. The executives wandered about as music played. Schultz lobbed them the day’s question: What can the Beatles teach us about reinvention? Execs threw out answers. “The band tool risks,” one said. “They took us on a journey at a time when the world needed cultural leaders,” said another. To Schultz this is a day worth writing about.

Why the mention of the unstrategically synchronized promotions? Because a few months after the summit, and for whatever reason, the chain’s counter people found themselves stuck with a new product, a “cold beverage concept,” that didn’t move units because it was loaded with sugar and had to compete with heavily promoted Starbucks products that were supposed to be health oriented. When they did sell some of the cold beverage concept, the staff found themselves with an extra hour and a half of cleaning at the end of the day; that’s how long the drink’s machines took. Schultz’s term for this: “a disciplined cleanup.”

“Pens!” Finally we have the New Orleans conference and Schultz’s mountaintop moment. Bono wows the assembly, but you know the real showstopper? When the “partners” are told they’ll be getting 10,000 Hewlett-Packard laptops. The place goes nuts. “The volume and duration of our partners’ jubilation exceeded anything we had heard or seen that day,” Schultz says. He tells us this in a jolly way: Imagine old Bob Whoever, the executive who made the announcement, upstaging Bono. But the background to the announcement was that Starbucks had its people using a computer system that, Schultz allows, was not up to the job. So the climax of his $34 million summit turns out to be a reenactment of the “Pens! Pens!” scene from 30 Rock (where poor Cooter, trapped at Homeland Security, lets the glorious pens tumble lavishly onto his desk top because he has office supplies at last).

Having staged his leadership experience, Schultz then picked up a memento at the gift shop. This memento is Onward, it’s a waste, and he can’t tell. It doesn’t matter if Schultz is an entrepreneur visionary; there’s something about being upper management that makes you an idiot.


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