Published on August 19, 2011
Starbucks Thailand's managing director Murray Darling shares his perspective and insights on the book, 'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul', which was written by the international coffee giant's chief executive Howard Schultz. Darling has written this article exclusively for The Nation.
Before I came to Thailand in mid-2009, I spent more than six years in the Starbucks Support Centre in Seattle, leading international marketing and category (product) management during the period covered in the "Onward" book. While the focus was on North America, my task was to identify the product, brand and marketing issues as well as opportunities that were relevant for us in 50 countries, where we were in a younger stage of development but faced potentially similar challenges as the US.
I was part of the "transformation agenda action team" and was jointly responsible for leading the seven big moves across international markets. I sat on many of the project teams and in many of the meetings with Howard Schultz and his leadership team to represent the international markets' perspectives. Since I am friends with most people mentioned in Schultz's book, the book was particularly personal to me and I read from cover to cover in two nights. Some of my favourite memories (with some implications for us in Starbucks Thailand) include:
_ Being on a coffee farm in Costa Rica with Cliff Burrows, president of Starbucks US and Colin Moore, president of Starbucks Canada, as well as attending the Global Advisory Council Meeting in Dubai with Schultz, Jim Donald (ex-CEO) and Jinlong Wang (president of the Asia-Pacific operation), as well as Cliff and Colin. It was clear then (2006) that we were facing some tensions between explosive store growth required to meet the customer demand and still delivering the best possible experience. Our joint ventures and licensed business partners gave us some very direct feedback on how important it was that we kept our values and culture intact. That is something that we at Starbucks Thailand are very proud of. It is critical that we treat each other with respect and dignity, and that we live by the values that make us a good company.
_ Peter Gibbons, executive vice president for the Supply Chain and I teamed up every week in Seattle as the dynamic Scottish duo in the Starbucks six-a-side football team. Well, Peter did all the running and I just got in the way of the shots as goalkeeper. You have to have fun and our Thai team knows how to do that. Maintaining a work and life balance is key to a happy and productive team.
_ I remember turning up for my interview with Michelle Gass, president of Seattle's Best Coffee, almost nine years ago (I am still grateful that she made the right decision to hire me that day) and noticing how down-to-earth and genuine she and the other 12 senior leaders (including Tom Barr, vice president for coffee) who interviewed me were. Just last month, I saw many of my old friends when I returned to Seattle from Thailand for the first time since arriving in Bangkok two years ago and they all made me feel so welcome. In fact, Tom insisted I go with him to a Seattle Mariners' baseball game on my first night so I did not give in to jetlag. At Starbucks Thailand, we like to hire genuine people with a good heart. We like working with people we can all get along with since this is our "second place" after all.
_ Also on my Seattle visit last month, I took Schultz aside and asked him for some help with a business/culture problem I was facing. He did not even blink. He listened and said he would do whatever it took to support the continued strength of our mission and values. It is not always easy to ask the big boss for help but sometimes you have to. My Thai team has learned this well and the members are not afraid to voice their opinions. Breaking the barriers that can be created by fear of hierarchy is not a problem in Starbucks Thailand.
Personally for me, I think the key messages in the book for businesses that face the similar challenges can be summed up in the following six points that I ask my team in Thailand to think about and hold me accountable for:
_ You need great cohesive leadership at the top that communicates well and engages its teams to be a meaningful part of the solution;
_ Leaders and their teams need the belief, passion and commitment to do what is needed to turn things around;
_ Focus on what you do well - innovate around the core and be the leader in that space (for us, that is great coffee, special service and nice atmosphere);
_ There are no "silver bullets". Stay the course and look to have the all the little things add up to sway the momentum back in your favour (we did that on our recovery from the global economic slump in 2008-2009 and are now having our best ever year in 2011);
_ Even when things are down, don't lose sight of what makes you a good company (Starbucks still kept providing healthcare to employees and supported their communities when times were tough. We in Thailand continued supporting the hilltribes and our local Thai communities);
_ Leadership needs to be open, approachable and genuinely interested in what their teams are saying/proposing, especially at the grass roots, in our stores. (My team is encouraged to challenge me whenever they think I am taking us down the wrong path).
I will use the learning with our team here in Thailand to ensure that we keep at the top of our game:
_ We need to consistently provide the best-quality products money can buy (recently you will have noticed an upgrade in our Frappuccino that allows you to customise your choice of milk, strength of coffee and flavour);
_ We need to keep hiring, training and retaining the best partners to provide outstanding friendly service, every day;
_ We need to invest in our stores to provide that special Starbucks experience (you will have seen some new store designs recently and will do so in the future);
_ We need to ensure that we give back to our communities that serve us so well. That is why supporting the northern hilltribes and the Integrated Tribal Development Programme with Muan Jai Coffee continues so helping build water tanks, schools and clinics remains an integral part of what makes Starbucks Thailand a good company to work for. It is also why we engage in other local non-governmental organisations such as Goodwill Group Foundation, Mercy Farm and Books for Children (we have already donated more than 3,000 community hours this year).
As the book says, Starbucks' future is international and our performance here in Thailand is a good example of that. We look forward to many good years of growth here and across the world.