Keith Bevans: making the case for consultancy over big tech © Peter Wynn Thompson/FT
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Keith Bevans has spent every week in a different country for the past six months, hunting for the best hires from business school campuses.

“It’s not my job to reach every student,” says the head of MBA recruitment for Bain & Company, who is currently wrapping up the firm’s summer internship recruitment drive. “But it is my job to enable students to reach anyone they want at Bain.”

Mr Bevans invests time criss-crossing the planet from his base in Chicago because his employer is fighting hard to lure top business school talent. Bain has long struggled to match the starting salaries of its larger rivals, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group, according to Jenny Rae Le Roux, managing director of Management Consulted, which compiles industry salary data.

“They are among the best of all consulting firms, but almost always lag McKinsey and BCG initially by a small increment,” she says.

Now, the consultancy faces yet more competition as large tech firms become major MBA hirers. At Stanford Graduate School of Business, for instance, Bain has been among the five biggest employers of MBA graduates for the past two years. But it has had to compete with the tech titans. Google was also among the top five hirers in 2016 and Apple was on the list last year.

At London Business SchoolBain last year hired 35 MBA graduates, the same number recruited by the school's top 14 finance employers, such as Goldman Sachs, but fewer than McKinsey (37) and BCG (36), and more than Amazon (23), the online retailer.

Why would an MBA graduate choose a consultancy career? For those interested in tech, Bain offers opportunities to work on projects with start-ups. Maria Liby Troein started as a consultant at Bain’s Boston headquarters in October 2015, working with the chief executive and chief financial officer of a local technology firm on strategy issues.

“The nature of the work means that you are working with these companies on things that are most critical for them to be successful,” she says. “That is very exciting.”

But the main draw is the opportunity to develop leadership skills, according to Mr Bevans. “We are growing the number of teams, which means we are also growing the number of managers. If we are growing the number of managers it means we are growing the number of opportunities to be a partner.”

Big tech competitors, however, can easily match it for exciting opportunities on offer. How will Bain persuade MBA talent that consultancy is for them? 

Mr Bevans claims his employer is the consultancy sector’s “natural contender” to big tech companies, in part because it is perceived as the agile start-up in the consultancy sector: Bain was created in 1973 by ex-BCG partner Bill Bain. By contrast, rival McKinsey was founded in 1926.

Last year Bain hired more than 400 MBA graduates from nearly 50 schools worldwide, chosen from about 9,000 applications, according to Mr Bevans. This year he expects the figure to be higher. “This is my fifth year in my role and the fifth year we will have our largest summer ever,” he says.

“We try very hard to find the best talent, especially in programmes that are outside of the largest schools.”

Bain will also play on its appeal as an employer. It has been ranked in the top-four places to work by Glassdoor, including three times at number one, every year since the jobs and recruitment website started listing its top performers in 2008. This year it came second, behind Facebook, but ahead of Google, McKinsey and Salesforce.

Interviews test for problem solving, communication skills and the ability to work in teams. “We like to see candidates have a structured approach to the business issue we discuss in the interviews,” Mr Bevans says. “They also need to use that approach to work through the analysis, find the insight, and make a recommendation of what to do.”

Fewer than 10 per cent of MBA graduates with an offer from Bain turn it down, according to Mr Bevans. 

Social media has changed how the consultancy reaches potential candidates. Bain used to try to answer all student questions through the campus visits, but for the past two years it has offered potential recruits the chance to sit in on webinars, known collectively as Experience Bain, hosted by staff in local offices around the world.

MBA students can put questions to employees, and see what would be happening in the workplace if they took a job with the company.

“We are communicating with the Snapchat generation, who expect to be able to go on to social media and contact employers directly,” Mr Bevans says. “The companies that attract the best students will be those that can participate in these types of free forums most successfully.”

Bain also recruits through its internships. About 90 per cent of MBA interns will be offered jobs. “[More] than 90 per cent will accept,” Mr Bevans adds. “What it means is that we are very selective on who comes on our summer internship programme.”

Last year, Bain offered summer internships to a record 200 MBA students, a figure it hopes to match this year. “The more people I hire in the summer the less I have to find in the fall,” says Mr Bevans.

Consultants’ pay and benefits

The consultancy sector pays extremely well. The average starting salary for MBA graduates is $150,000, according to the 2018 pay survey compiled by Management Consulted, the advisory company. 

MBA graduates received signing bonuses that averaged at $25,000, and performance bonuses, in some cases as high as $44,000.

Consultants often enjoy salary gains during economic downturns because companies need their services to cut costs. They are equally necessary when times are good, because companies want to grow. JM 

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