Top 10 Consulting Firms

05/05/2011
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“One of the best things about my job is that it’s constantly changing,” says one consultant. “We work on assignments that range from a month to a few years, and in different industries. Your knowledge and experience are flexible, and I appreciate that.”

Consulting firms usually fall under three broad categories:

  • Strategy consultants work with senior management to assess such big-picture issues as whether to merge with another company or enter Asian markets.
  • Operations consultants examine the internal workings of an organization and ways a client can reach operational goals by cutting costs, restructuring departments or allocating resources differently, raising product quality or other methods.
  • Information-technology consultants help clients use or adopt new technologies. Information technology ando operations consultants often remain on site to ensure their recommendations and changes are enacted, which produces a steady income stream for their firms.

Working as a consultant has obvious benefits, including in-depth knowledge of companies and industries, prestige and relatively high pay. It also has a downside. Most consultants travel extensively, which is often viewed as a perk — at least in the beginning. Do you want to visit London, Singapore or Brasilia? As a consultant, you may have a chance.

“I’ve done some amazing things because of the locations of my assignments,” says one young consultant. “I flew the Concorde, was in Lillehammer for the winter Olympics, gambled in Monte Carlo, went to the opera at Covent Garden, had dinner in the Eiffel Tower, spent a summer afternoon at a beach in Nice, and the list goes on.”

But many consultants are required to be available for travel 100% of the time and are away between three and five days a week. At this pace, travel stops being a perk after three to six months, many consultants say. It’s especially onerous if you have a family or significant other.

Add to the travel grind a 50- to 80-hour work week, and you begin to understand why many consultants burn out after a few years on the job. At least ex-consultants have great career prospects and a wide choice of options because of their multi-faceted work experience.

Consulting firms hire graduates from all majors, from art history to zoology. While consultancies appreciate business and quantitative skills and computer experience, they’re primarily seeking intelligent, analytical, articulate and flexible prospects with a basic aptitude for business. Says one recent graduate: “We do a lot of numbers work, but we figure that if someone is smart, they can be taught.”

Interviewers at consulting firms measure aptitude through “case interviews,” which require candidates to walk through a business scenario, analyze the situation and make recommendations.

If you think you’ve got what it takes to be a consultant, review the following inside scoop on the 10 top consulting firms, based on surveys with thousands of employees at leading firms:

– Ms. Lerner is editorial director of Vault.com, a New York City information services provider for job seekers. More information can be found in “The Vault Report Guide to Consulting.”

Ten Top U.S. Consulting Firms

1. McKinsey & Co.

Mckinsey & Co logo

McKinsey is the most powerful consulting firm in the world. In boardrooms and corporate offices around the world, it is known simply as “The Firm,” the first recourse for advice when business woes strike. Such a reputation makes McKinsey consultants highly sought after and expensive to hire; its 9.000 consultants, citizens of 81 countries, generate an estimated $450,000 per person annually. Customers include some of the bluest-chip companies in the world, such as PepsiCo, AT&T, GE, IBM and General Motors Corps.

Since many ex-McKinsey consultants serve on company boards (up to a third of all boards, according to some estimates), the firm has long-term ties and relationships with CEOs at many major organizations.

Specialties: McKinsey is known as a strategy firm; its consultants usually are engaged to help create long-term strategic plans for a company, product or operation. In most cases, consultants work with senior-level executives at client companies.

Good: McKinsey tops most consulting firms for prestige and name-recognition; the firm is in a class of its own. The firm is consistently tapped for world-wide assignments, which means peerless opportunities for diverse experience and travel (65% of the firm’s revenues are generated overseas). Because of great connections, ex-consultants have excellent career prospects.

Bad: Not everyone makes it to the winner’s circle. Under the firm’s strict “up or out” policy, only one in 11 who start make it to senior partner. New associates have six years to make partner — and partners have six more years to make it to director levels. Insiders add that if you don’t like travel, think twice about McKinsey.

Ugly: Allegations of sexual discrimination still plague the firm. Former McKinsey associate Suzanne Porter claims the firm discriminated against her by not promoting her to partner despite outstanding reviews. McKinsey has since settled the suit.

2. Bain

bain consulting

After being plagued by lawsuits, layoffs and near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s, Bain has leaped back to the top of its game. The firm is ranked among the world’s most prestigious consultants, along with McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group — which once employed founder William Bain. Bain is rare among major consulting firms for having a woman, Chairman of the Board, Orit Gadiesh, at the top. The firm employs 5.000 consultants.

Specialties: Bain is a world leader in strategy consulting and has a strong international bent. Unlike some other strategy firms, Bain stresses that all its strategy recommendations must be immediately useful. Everything “comes down to what the client will do differently Monday morning,” says Ms. Gadiesh.

Good: Equal in prestige to its close competitors, Bain has a smaller, more congenial feel than larger rivals and views encouraging a friendly environment as a worthwhile expense. Among special touches is the “Bain Band,” an amateur assembly of Bain employee-musicians who serenade fellow “Bainies” at company events. Insiders say pay is generous and raises average more than 15% a year.

Bad: Bain employees must hew to conservative dress codes and travel extensively. Work hours are long as well — consultants can expect to spend at least one day per weekend working or at the airport.

Ugly: Some say (quietly) that Ms. Gadiesh’s purple-red locks and “over-the-top” costume jewelry lean toward “unsightly” considering she’s the head of a major firm.

3. The Boston Consulting Group

Boston Consulting Group

In an industry where some firms have been accused of using the same research and offering identical solutions to clients, The Boston Consulting Group prides itself on treating each client’s case as a unique problem with a unique solution. BCG is famed for its “BCG Matrix,” a strategy tool which explains the relationship between company profitability and market share. The company has 4,400 consultants.

Specialties: BCG is a strategy consulting firm, known for creating matrices and diagrams to clarify strategy issues. Since 1985, BCG has been especially active in Eastern Europe, advising companies on deregulation and privatization issues.

Good: BCG is known for its attention to quality-of-life issues; while considered as prestigious as McKinsey and Bain, it requires fewer hours weekly — about 55 on average — and consultants can expect a few weekends each month to be their own.

Bad: BCG’s “do-everything-from-scratch” policy can mean extra legwork for employees. The firm also bases bonuses on demonstrated actual performance, which means that when results don’t meet expectations, you shouldn’t expect extra pay.

Ugly: BCG’s graphs and matrices were unique when first introduced in the ’80s; now the firm has lots of competition and the matrix isn’t as glamorous.

4. Monitor Co.

monitor logo

Founded by Harvard professors in 1983 and inspired by the teachings of founding member Michael Porter (who first developed the strategy theory “Porter’s Five Forces”), Monitor is a congenial, prestigious 700-consultant firm in Cambridge, Mass.

All Monitor consultants have the same title — consultant. The firm prides itself on being a meritocracy and offers unusually large merit bonuses — as high as 50% of salary.

Specialties: Not surprising for a firm started by academics, Monitor designs theories and programs to ensure successful implementation of its strategy recommendations. For instance, Action Learning is a technique to help circumvent the objections of clients who balk at advice from outsiders and make sure strategic change is long-lasting.

Good: Monitor’s massive performance bonuses and collegial, “almost academic” atmosphere. The latter is especially conducive to personal growth.

Bad: Monitor’s feared interview process features a group interview where stressed-out applicants attempt to solve a problem together, while being silently observed by Monitor interviewers.

Ugly: Lousy typists may want to brush up — Monitor recently downsized nearly all its research and clerical support staff.

5. Arthur D. Little

Arthur D Little

The oldest consulting firm in existence (founded in 1886), ADL is especially known for attention to technological issues and has a staff of innovative engineers and environmental scientists. ADL also runs a patent service, which shepherds inventors through the patent process in return for half of the proceeds. Consulting employees number 1,800.

Specialties: ADL has a more scientific bent than many consulting firms. It’s renowned for environmental consulting practice and operations and information technology consulting. The latter includes recommending appropriate technologies (including e-commerce) and program structures. ADL also has a strategy consulting practice and makes long-term strategy recommendations.

Good: ADL is an “entrepreneurial” firm where all employees hold stock. Consultants say they “enjoy working on small teams with scientists and other experts.”

Bad: ADL is a hawk about costs; many consultants complain about having to fly coach.

Ugly: Insiders say ADL’s headquarters looks “like an underfunded community college.”

6. Booz Allen & Hamilton

boozallen

Booz Allen is especially renowned for consulting to government agencies, but also does more than its share of pro bono work with charities and nonprofits. The firm makes a point of integrating client management into its consulting teams and spends about half of its time on implementation — ensuring that recommendations are put into place and work. Booz Allen has 22,000 consultants.

Specialties: Booz Allen offers integrated strategy, operations and information technology consulting to solve “CEO-level” problems. It is well-known for consulting to government agencies and has several specialized government practices, including defense, environment, transportation, space and international government.

Good: Employees at Booz Allen love the “lack of bureaucracy” and resulting flexible schedules and career paths; travel perks also are reputed to be “exceptional.”

Bad: The flip side of independence is “lack of structure and support”; insiders say it’s “difficult to progress without a mentor.”

Ugly: In the past, Booz Allen’s working environment was considered “macho” and “frankly repulsive” to women, but efforts have been made to correct this image.

7. Mercer Management Consulting

mercer

Mercer is aggressive and in a hurry to reach the top of the consulting industry. This young, fast-growing subsidiary of Marsh & MacLennan has acquired dozens of smaller firms in the last 14 years. The firm is young; as a hybrid offspring of Temple, Barker & Sloan and Strategic Planning Associates, it took the name Mercer Management Consulting in 1992. The firm has 18.000 consultants.

Specialties: Mercer has four major areas of expertise: financial services, transportation, communications/information/entertainment and a catch-all, mostly manufacturing group. While Mercer is primarily a strategy consulting firm, it often draws on the expertise of consultants from other Marsh & MacLennan groups, including William M. Mercer Cos., National Economic Research Associates and Lippincott & Margulies, involved in, respectively, human resource, microeconomic and identity consulting.

Good: As a subsidiary of a major, publicly traded insurance company, the firm offers “unusually diverse and generous” health-care benefits, says an insider. Other perks, such as stock options, are “juicy as well.” Mercer also gives new consultants the responsibility that can help them grow in their jobs.

Bad: Mercer’s quick growth and frequent acquisitions mean “the bureaucracy is growing almost as fast,” say employees.

Ugly: Mercer employs “case-team associates” — assistants to consultants with less prestigious undergraduate degrees, and tensions have arisen between assistants and consultants of similar age and educational levels.

8. AT Kearney

at-kearney

In 1995, AT Kearney merged with Plano, Texas-based juggernaut Electronic Data Systems (EDS), recently detached from General Motors Corp. Industry observers were skeptical about the success of the union, but the resulting consulting giant, with its strategic and info-tech expertise, has been a resounding success. AT Kearney has 4,700 employees, including 2,700 consultants.

Specialties: AT Kearney offers strategic consulting but is especially well regarded for aerospace, financial, health-care and retail industry specialties. The firm has a strong operations consulting niche and a good track record, deriving more than 75% percent of business from past clients. Its acquisition by EDS, a global information services firm, has vastly improved AT Kearney’s information-technology capabilities.

Good: With its new interest and expertise in technology, the firm is poised to profit from the information-technology boom. Percentage gains in revenues have grown by double digits for 14 years running.

Bad: Straightlaced CEO Fred Steingraber forbids casual days; consultants must wear suits every day.

Ugly: The dearth of women at AT Kearney is “embarrassing” to firm consultants; only five female vice presidents are employed there.

9. Mitchell Madison Group

mitchell madison group

This new, fast-growing consulting firm was founded in 1995 by refugees from McKinsey & Co. who were frustrated at what they saw as the wasted potential of many good employees. In three years, the firm has grown to 750 consultants from fewer than 50 in 1995, mostly through proficient financial consulting work.

Specialties: Mitchell Madison has made a name by saving companies money. Using its track record in financial institution cost reduction as an entree and concentrating on deregulating industries, Mitchell Madison has won assignments in the automotive, media, petrochemical, pharmaceutical, telecommunications and electronic technology sectors. Major growth areas are health care, chemicals and high technology.

Good: Mitchell Madison’s newness means that dissension and independence aren’t only tolerated, but encouraged; decisions are made in “round table” vs. “hierarchical” fashion.

Bad: Consultants at Mitchell Madison report working extremely long hours, even for management-consulting standards. Having to work 15 hours a day, six days a week, plus half of Sunday isn’t atypical, say employees.

Ugly: A lack of training and clerical support means “you’re out there on your own,” say insiders. And Mitchell Madison has grown so quickly that glitches are inevitable and “somehow become your fault.”

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