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Secretive at the best of times, management consultants have done an impressive job of staying out of the headlines during this meltdown. Where are the heads of those who advised banks to sell mortgage securities? Plenty of senior partners must be hoping their seven-figure pay packets remain hidden from newly populist governments. To be fair, the $200bn-odd industry by sales is in soul-searching mode itself. After all, with a decade wiped off global stock markets of late, investors may well ask if they add any value at all.
There is no doubt that management consultancy, as with other professional services, was a big beneficiary of the long credit boom and that many clients can no longer afford to pay top dollar for external validation of what they often would have done anyway. The Management Consultancies Association reckons revenue growth in the UK, for example, fell to about 5 per cent in 2008 compared with double that the year before and 25 per cent growth in 2005.
The top companies, however, are still doing well. Dominic Barton, named on Monday as McKinsey’s new managing director, can take heart that 90 per cent of consultants have probably given the other 10 per cent a bad reputation, as Henry Kissinger once said of politicians. McKinsey actually had a better-than-average year in terms of profitability in 2008. It expects the number of partners to be up next year and more than 1,000 new recruits overall. Billing rates are steady, although there are signs that fees are under pressure and more clients want to link a higher proportion of fees to performance.
Of course, things will become tougher. But the vision of McKinsey chugging along suggests two themes. First, the flight to quality seen in assets during this crisis might also be evident in professional services. Second, with history being rewritten by the minute, top-end relationships rather than commoditised number-crunching are more important than ever.
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