Consulting firms: From advising to doing

  • Article by: THE ECONOMIST
  • Updated: May 18, 2014 - 10:58 AM

The lawsuit makes the case sound like a spy novel. Two executives at a prestigious multinational organization hold secret meetings with a competitor who hopes to poach them. Before jumping ship, they send a lot of confidential files, such as strategic plans and contact lists, to their personal and relatives’ e-mail accounts, in a “frantic effort to steal whatever documents [they] could.”

On May 9, a judge issued an order requiring the defendants to return the files and barring their new employer from using the information.

AlixPartners vs. Eric Thompson and Ivo Naumann, which was filed in April, will probably not become a Hollywood film. The mundane truth is that AlixPartners is a professional-services firm specializing in corporate restructuring and that Thompson and Naumann, the defendants, now work for McKinsey, a firm of consultants. The suit does not claim that the documents were given to McKinsey, and McKinsey has said the alleged trade secrets would have been of little use anyway. Nonetheless, the case illustrates the heating-up of competition between corporate-turnaround advisers and strategy consultants. It is the most striking example so far of the risks for both.

In the early 1980s there was still some truth to the caricature of management consultants making abstruse recommendations and taking little interest in their execution. Companies in or near insolvency could not afford this luxury, and both AlixPartners and its bigger peer, Alvarez & Marsal, were founded in those years to cater to companies on the brink. The new turnaround firms mastered the intricacies of bankruptcy courts and tight cash-management, and recruited experienced hands from a wide range of industries whom they could deploy as interim executives.

The firms’ appetite for growth exceeded the supply of troubled clients, and in the late 1990s they diversified their practices. Alvarez & Marsal set up a division to serve private-equity investors. AlixPartners founded a strategy-consulting arm of its own. Today, a minority of their revenue comes from turnaround work. Nonetheless, it remains their forte and a lucrative niche: Alvarez & Marsal earned $627 million from the Lehman Brothers case alone in the four years after the bank went under.

For similar reasons, management consultants have also expanded beyond their roots in strategy. When the financial crisis took hold in 2008, dragging hundreds of companies into distress, the strategy firms found themselves poorly placed to help. “If a client was going into bankruptcy, we couldn’t walk through that valley of darkness with them,” says McKinsey’s Jon Garcia. So in 2010 the company set up a Recovery and Transformation Services (RTS) practice, which Garcia heads.

For McKinsey, the turnaround business is unfamiliar turf. For 80 years the firm merely sold advice, which clients were free to ignore — shielding the consultants from blame whenever things went awry.

Copyright 2013 The Economist Newspaper Limited, London. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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