New markets open up fresh opportunities for management consultants

Justine East reports on the activity generated by emerging economies
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The Independent Online

Last month, Tommy Weir worked in eight different countries across three continents. By the end of the year, he'll have clocked up 250,000 air miles. It's tough physically and on the family, he admits, but it's worth it to have the life of a management consultant tapping into expanding overseas markets – in his case the Middle East, where projects have included working with Vodafone to build their managers' capability for the Qatar market.

"In addition to significant field research, publishing and thought leadership in this area, we work with companies who are expanding into these markets, and developing their managers and leaders for the region," explains Weir, who is managing director of global leadership solutions at Kenexa.

For other management consultants, the work involves helping organisations already based in these countries, both in the private and public sector, to expand and/or improve.

For years, Weir was mesmerised by the idea of being a consultant. "I guess it comes from my academic roots and a chance to share knowledge and expertise in a practical way." Working in emerging markets, he says, is particularly exciting because this growth has the potential to be incredibly fast. "The challenges are so fresh and unique that it provides the opportunity to be imaginative," he adds.

Colonialism this is not, he insists. "You can't expect to be able to export Western-orientated models to the emerging markets. You have to adapt your style and approach to fit the demands and needs of the situation and the workforce. This raises the complexity level, and gives the chance to really think and apply an understanding of human and societal development, as business is a reflection of its society and made up of employees."

It's not that management consultants can't translate their existing knowledge, however, says Anand Narasimhan, professor of organisational behaviour at IMD business school.

"The emerging economies are exciting for three reasons," he says. "One, there are lots of opportunities to resell tried and tested consultancy solutions that were developed as Western corporations evolved from the mid-1960s onwards – in areas such as organisational restructuring, human capital, telecoms and technology, strategy and financial systems. Second, as the large Chinese, Indian and Brazilian companies globalise, they will have to turn to management consultancies for help with mergers and acquisitions and transformation in their governance systems the way large Western corporations do. Third, emerging markets are areas in which consultants can try out innovations that will transform the sector."

This work is not for the faint-hearted. You'll need strong interpersonal skills, breakthrough thinking, conceptual flexibility, great presentation ability and a strong work ethic. "You will clearly need to be willing to travel and be abroad for long periods of time," adds Jeff Thompson, head of consulting for Europe, Middle East and Asia at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). "Language skills are obviously a plus, but we're finding we can link very effectively with local teams on this front."

Not surprisingly, the intensity of the work usually rules out fresh graduates, but even at this level you can make a contribution. Meanwhile, newcomers to the profession who come with deep industry or local knowledge can be paired up with local teams pretty quickly. Indeed, around £1bn worth of business is currently being exported into these markets from UK-based management consultancy firms, and, for many management consultancy companies, this work now constitutes at least 20 per cent of their projects.

Thompson points to central Africa, central and eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia as being particularly ripe with opportunities for management consultants. "There's a lot of activity with major multinationals headquartered in these territories that are looking to invest and expand into the West," he says. "For example, once a company has acquired something in the West, how do they then create the systems, supply chains and so on that they need to be able to do business effectively? This is where we can come in to help. In addition, we are seeing a lot of government activity around major infrastructure and development projects in the emerging markets, which provides us with opportunity. However, we are also seeing work with those governments that don't have regular streams of income, where it's then all about driving cost efficiencies – something we have a great deal of experience in working on in the UK."

One of the most exhilarating projects PwC is involved in has emerged following the auction by the Iraqis for Western oil companies to come on board as part of the development of Iraq. PwC is working on a major project for a European and Asian oil company joint venture to help them design the finance and accounting infrastructure for that venture in Basra. "For this project, we are using a joint Middle East and UK team to pool the skills and local knowledge of the consultants we have," says Thompson. "Iraq will become one of the major oil providers of the future, so it is an exciting job to be involved in, whilst at the same time a challenging one as we work in a country that is not yet a trouble-free zone."

In southern Africa, PwC is working with cash-strapped governments who are facing demands for better local services, and the challenges of deploying them across local townships. "Again, we have excellent experience from working on similar projects with local government in the UK, which allows us to be able to help here."

For many companies, including McKinney Rogers – a winner this year of The Queen's Award for Enterprise in International Trade – it is their work in emerging markets that has enabled them to realise a period of intense growth, despite the economic downturn. "Our focus is China – a country that is witnessing an incredible evolution of business growth and change, and rapidly becoming a major part of all global organisation strategic plans," says John Collins, one of the South Asia partners at McKinney Rogers. He adds that there are also opportunities in India, particularly in the technology sector.

But it's not just the large consultancies that work on the biggest projects in these markets. Shane Mugan, chief executive of the professional services firm Novo Altum, explains that they recently won a bid to work on a huge project in Moscow, even though they were up against some of the Big Four firms. "The work is for an investment bank which needs, because of the global economy, to get themselves up to world standard very quickly. They chose us because our team had worked in this area geographically, but it was also because of our expertise and experience in the subject matter."

Mugan believes these markets are the future, and are ignored at a firm's, or an individual management consultant's, peril. "This work enriches your own value proposition, so you become far more intuitive and, in any case, clients are becoming increasingly international, and few are leaving these markets behind."

For fast growing numbers of management consultants such as Tara Durnin, associate director at Arup, the rewards of seeing a project in these markets come together are exceptional. Having started life at Arup as a technical IT support analyst, Durnin now works on the development of airports as big as Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

‘It is incredibly exciting to deliver solutions for such complex business problems'

Graham Butler is a UK consulting energy partner at IBM. He is currently based in China.

"I jumped at the chance of working in China. My work as a management consultant specialising in utilities had taken me overseas already, including to the US for three years, so I had global experience and deep industry knowledge.

I now look after the state grid corporation, which is responsible for 85 per cent of all of China. So we're talking about the big wires you see on the towers of generation stations right through to the meters in people's homes.

In April, I stopped commuting to China and moved to the country. That's meant that both I and my family have had the experience of learning about, and enjoying, a new culture.

Although my children are now of university age, it's still a great opportunity for them to come and see how the emerging markets are growing.

On the business side, the rewards are equally huge. It is tremendously varied work and incredibly exciting to deliver solutions for such complex business problems.

What's particularly interesting about the Chinese market is that there is a pace that brings even more excitement. For example, the Chinese have huge growth projected in the automotive vehicle market, especially in electric vehicles. That alone poses huge challenges for my client.

To do work like mine, you have to enjoy new experiences and have a mindset about doing things differently. If you do, I'd advise seizing the opportunity."