If you can't beat them, invest in them: Andersen embraces the E revolution

Consultant buys stakes in firms that will poach its staff
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The Independent Online

In its London and New York offices, a curious "situations vacant" sign has appeared on Andersen Consulting's pin boards. But the notice is not advertising internal job opportunities: it is listing lucrative positions with fledgling dot com companies.

To the outsider this may seem like commercial suicide at a time when management consultants are haemorrhaging staff to internet ventures. But it is part of a wider plan by the firm's new managing partner and chief executive, Joe Forehand, to reposition Andersen Consulting as an e-business specialist.

The company has quietly built up stakes in 281 ventures. So the rationale is that, if some staff will inevitably leave for the dot com world, it is better that they go to companies in which Andersen has stakes.

"We will become a market maker of the new economy. To do this we have to fundamentally and aggressively transform our business by investing in business," says Mr Forehand. He is an Andersen man through and through. The Texan joined the firm straight from college in 1972, and rose through the ranks to become a partner in 1982.

Through his Southern twang, he speaks like most Andersen partners - or androids, as some clients call them - in broad concepts and slogans. His latest is: "Consulting is no longer a spectator sport; it's a participation sport." But this catch phrase reveals the extent to which he is repositioning the firm.

He is no longer content with telling companies how to do their business, he wants Andersen Consulting to have a slice of the action itself. Asked who his rivals are, Mr Forehand doesn't list any of Andersen Consulting's obvious competitors like PriceWaterhouseCoopers or Deloitte & Touche. In fact, he doesn't list any management consultants.

"The software companies which have a consulting function are obviously competitors. We also have to look at the venture capital companies that have evolved down the path of creating companies," he says.

Although Mr Forehand claims that Andersen Consulting has always been at the forefront of the e-commerce revolution, in fact his company was relatively late for the party.

It was understood to have been shocked by the success of young upstart companies like Razorfish, the website design company based in London's Smithfield, that started to win work from large corporate clients as early as 1998. Andersen Consulting's late entry could partly be related to the acrimonious, ongoing divorce with its sister company, the accountant Arthur Andersen.

Despite this distraction, Mr Forehand is staking Andersen Consulting's future performance on e-commerce. Its annual report published last week reveals that its net revenue last year grew by 8 per cent to $8.9bn (£5.6bn), with $2.4bn coming solely from the hi-tech and communications sector. Mr Forehand wants this year's growth to be up to 15 per cent, but he says that achieving that relies on recruiting an extra 3,000 people.

At a firm which employs 65,500 people, this may seem like a drop in the ocean. But the mushrooming number of dot com companies which come with attractive share option schemes will make it tricky.

Says the chairman of a high-profile UK internet company, which has recruited former Andersen Consulting staff: "It is very easy to poach management consultants because they don't come with share options. The other month, for example, we were trying to recruit a venture capitalist. But he had £1.5m of options, which we just couldn't match. In the end we appointed a consultant."

Mr Forehand claims to have this problem covered. Last November - less than a month into his new job - he held a meeting with senior Andersen partners to discuss investment opportunities and the recruitment crisis. The product of the meeting was a single solution to both problems: AC Ventures, a new venture capital arm with $1bn to invest over three years.

This vehicle gives Andersen a slice of the dot com action - in Mr Forehand's words, "allowing us to be a prolific creator of new companies". It is also designed to help retain staff, by offering around 40,000 employees the opportunity to earn stock - called "e-units" - in the vehicle.

"This year we have committed $200m to employees through e-units," says Mr Forehand. "We want to make every employee passionate about being an Andersen person every time they wake up in the morning," he says without a tinge of irony. AC Ventures has invested $150m in 43 companies, which has yielded six flotations with six pending.

Andersen Consulting also takes stakes in companies though its "Dot-Com Launch Centers" which give advice to fledgling companies after they have received first-round funding. Instead of charging a flat fee for the work, Andersen Consulting is prepared to accept part payment though a stake in the venture - usually between 5 and 10 per cent. Last week, the company had positions in 238 dot com companies which it hopes to extend to 500 in two years. Assuming that one fifth of the companies float, Andersen Consulting estimates that its stakes could be worth between $6bn to $12bn.

But it is not just the small clients it is investing with. Last month, Andersen jumped into bed with Bill Gates' software colossus Microsoft. The pair formed a $1bn joint venture company, Avanade, which is expected to employ 5,000 people in five years. Avanade will act as a consultant to corporate clients offering e-commerce solutions on the Windows 2000 operating system.

The timing of the announcement couldn't have been worse, with news breaking about the successful lawsuit against Microsoft, which attacked it as having acted as an "unlawful" monopoly. But Mr Forehand claims that this won't harm the joint venture.

"We are confident that it [the law suit] won't affect the Windows 2000 platform in any way," he says abruptly.

He is now hatching further joint ventures "with some of the world's most powerful companies". It is understood that the firm could announce a deal with a major US technology group as early as this week.

If Andersen Consulting is getting into bed with major corporates and it is taking equity positions in start ups, then isn't this a conflict of interest with its pure consulting activities? The simple answer to this is "yes".

Mary Tolan, managing partner of growth and strategy and Mr Forehand's joint number two, says: "Every company has bias. Clients are telling us that they want speed and value over independent advisory consulting."

Jackson Wilson, managing general partner of AC Ventures, goes a little further in arguing that, because Andersen Consulting is investing in such a wide range of ventures, then an element of conflict is inevitable. "Some existing clients will move into a space occupied by one of our dot com companies. Six months down the line there will be a bump in the night. We are prepared to deal with that," he says.

With such a change in the type of business Andersen Consulting does, how will it affect its corporate structure? In other words, will it float?

In the short term, things will remain static until its dispute with Arthur Andersen - the accountant is claiming billions of dollars compensation for the divorce - is resolved. The case has gone to international arbitration in Paris and a decision is due by June.

If Andersen Consulting is forced to pay up then it may have to consider breaking with tradition - with a flotation to raise capital.

Mr Forehand refuses to be drawn on whether this is a possibility. But when asked if the company's partnership structure will be intact in 18 months' time, he says: "I would be surprised if I knew what was happening in two months' time because things are moving so fast these days."

Another senior partner, who asked not to be named, says: "An IPO would give us the paper to make corporate acquisitions - which is very difficult as a private company. The downside is that we would become a slave to quarterly earnings. It's a matter of weighing these two things together - and that hasn't yet been done."

Another, perhaps more palatable option, would be to float off AC Ventures. But again neither Mr Forehand nor Mr Wilson would be drawn on that possibility.

While Andersen executives are coy on the firm's future structure, they are crystal clear on its direction. In Mr Forehand's words: "We are moving beyond a consulting company. We are becoming an essential part of the new economy, the dot com and e-business economy."