West End `club' that breeds the big-shots who call the tune in British business

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If, as expected, Archie Norman, head of the Asda supermarket chain and now the prospective candidate for the safe seat of Tunbridge Wells, makes it to a future Conservative Cabinet, he will find himself among friends, not just at No 10 but in virtually every other part of the Establishment.

Once, the route to power was via Eton and the Guards. Today, it is McKinsey, a firm of American management consultants, based in Jermyn Street, in the West End of London, and a network at the top of British life.

McKinsey breeds its own priesthood, its own sense of togetherness. McKinsey graduates tend to talk the same language, think the same thoughts, share the same beliefs. Leaks are unheard of, disaffections a rarity. Bonded by adversity - they are often unpopular with the junior management of the corporations they are studying - they work together, play together and often marry each other.

That spirit stays with them, when they are finally lured away on huge salaries to run a company or public institution. The trust and belonging remain.

Recent beneficiaries of the firm's advice - with echoes of John Grisham, it is referred to internally as "The Firm" - include the Tate Gallery, BBC, Kingfisher and British Airways. For those and many other organisations - the firm never publishes a client list - it has devised new strategies, sending in teams to turn the place inside out, to find out how it ticks and what can be done to make it better.

The long hours and mind-numbing number-crunching is rewarded by high pay and a sense of getting things done. McKinsey is called in by the very top, and is listened to. Acquiring membership of what is fast becoming the best-connected club in Britain is mind-bogglingly difficult. At job interviews this year, star graduates from the world's best business schools were asked questions such as: you have just discovered a microbe that can reduce the water content of potatoes by 1 per cent - what is its economic value? Or, how many tonnes of tortilla are eaten in Mexico each year?

Would-be recruits for the pounds 58,000-a-year junior consultant posts are put through six separate formal interviews and six quasi-sessions with staffers up to senior partner rank. McKinsey operates an "up or out" policy. If they are not promoted, they will be shown the door.

But even ex-McKinsey employees will automatically be listed in a directory circulated among the firm's old boys and girls. The volume is one of the most exclusive networking books in the world, listing contacts for 3,500 people who once worked for McKinsey.

A guide to the sort of people they were looking for can be gleaned from their emphasis on numeracy and a serious approach to life. Laugh when they asked about Mexican tortillas and you had not a hope.

Business in politics, page 5

The men from McKinsey's

Norman Blackwell, head of No 10 Policy Unit

Adair Turner, new director-general of the CBI

Sir John Banham, former director-general of the CBI

Howard Davies, ex-CBI chief and now deputy governor of the Bank of England

Don Cruickshank, Oftel regulator

Peter Ford, chairman of London Transport

William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales

Archie Norman, chief executive of Asda and aspiring Tory MP

Bob Worcester, chairman of MORI

Stephen Brandon, director, British Gas

Jonathan Fry, managing director, Burmah Castrol

George Feiger, head of investment banking, SBC Warburg