Saturday, August 30, 2008

The "I" in choice

Historians, as you probably know, are prone to fight at the drop of a three-cornered hat. Just mention the Strong Man Theory, for instance, and you’re likely to see a headlock here, an eye jab there. Before long, medieval curses will be flying, and enough tweed will be ripped to make James Lipton wince. Still, even after all the bloodshed, one faction will insist that history is driven by extraordinary individuals acting on personal agendas. And their opponents will refuse to budge from the conviction that circumstances, not strong men or women, are what change the path of human development.

So, please, if you’re holding a kegger this weekend for that rowdy bunch from Elizabethan Studies, do not mention the latest initiatives from Starbucks or Danny Meyer.

After all, USA Today’s exclusive on Starbucks’ latest menu overhaul left little doubt the chain is adopting more healthful choices because of developments in the life of CEO Howard Schultz. The article recounted how Schultz discovered during a physical that his cholesterol was too high and that he needed to pursue a more healthful lifestyle. He changed his ways, the story noted. And, at virtually the same time, so did Starbucks. First it rolled out its new healthful smoothie line. Then, Schultz disclosed to USA Today’s Bruce Horovitz, it drafted the new reduced-fat, higher-fiber breakfast array that’ll be introduced on Tuesday.

A coincidence? Ask anyone historian with a well-thumbed copy of “Julius Caesar: The Early Years” on his or desk.

Then there’s the new diversification by Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. The operator of such fine-dining shrines as Gramercy Tavern and Union Square CafĂ© is planning to open restaurants in the Mets’ new stadium, Citi Field, when it opens in Flushing, Queens, next year. Nation’s Restaurant News broke the story after speaking with Meyer, who acknowledged that this is more than a cold, calculated business decision. “We think Citi Field is a great opportunity in which to parlay our love of sports and launch a new division,” he told NRN’s Elissa Elan.

Clearly, neither businessman is stepping outside himself to look with complete detachment at possible new directions for their businesses. Yet both have repeatedly demonstrated they’re no Dan Quayle when it comes to spelling out opportunity. These are some of the most respected figures in the business, if not American commerce. Does that mean those of us yet to climb Mr. Olympus should consider a little more Yoda and a little less Peter Drucker? Should we indeed yield a little more to The Force we feel?

The record is at best murky. In the late 1980s, a businessman named Victor Kiam decided he really appreciated a certain type of electric shaver. “I like it so much I bought the company,” he famously told consumers in a long-running TV campaign for Remington razors. That bit of strongman business savvy worked well for Kiam; he would grow the company and remain its chairman until his death in 2001.

But personal preference also led him to buy the New England Patriots football team. It was a financial disaster for him.

Less ambiguous are the bankruptcy notices for restaurant and after restaurant that were opened because the entrepreneur liked the idea of being in that business, or really enjoyed cooking, or loved hanging out in star-studded establishments. Ego equaled disaster in those instances.

Of course, those decisions were often based solely on bias, not on business sense. Schultz and Meyer probably couldn’t have suspended their commercial intuition if they had wanted to do so.

So my bet is they’ve made good decisions, even if each choice may have been more influenced by personal criteria than other moves they’ve made.

We’ll certainly see. Perhaps starting on Tuesday.

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to mention the costly "Border Lites" low-cal-menu marketing debacle at Taco Bell that was launched by its then-dieting chairman/ceo John Martin. He and TB both were losers on that one.