Against-the-grain strategies that work - Emirates24|7

Against-the-grain strategies that work

 
 

Doug Lattner says his first rule of business leadership is “know yourself”. The CEO of fast-growing Deloitte Consulting applied that lesson to his own firm when he assumed the reins of the New York-based unit in 2003.

 

At the time, Deloitte Consulting, which offered expertise in such areas as strategy, technology and human resources, was serving 42 types of client groups. Lattner and his team grew the overall business even as they slashed that number by more than half, serving just 19 segments.

 

Narrowing its focus was not the only unconventional decision made during the five years that Lattner has been at the helm. The unit also scrapped a planned management buyout and spinoff at the last possible minute, necessitating a complicated reintegration with parent Deloitte & Touche. In doing so, they were taking the exact opposite approach from the parent company’s largest accounting-industry competitors, who were racing to shed their consulting units in the early 2000s, fearful of the impact of a new federal law passed in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals.

 

These against-the-grain strategies, Lattner said, brought impressive results: the consulting firm, with 11,500 employees, has grown at a much faster pace – 25 per cent last year alone – than its main consulting rivals as well as the other units within Deloitte & Touche.

 

Meanwhile, some of the accounting competitors that had spun off their consulting arms are paying Deloitte the ultimate compliment: they are looking to get back into the business.

 

The consulting field has grown and changed dramatically since 1975 when Lattner was hired right out of business school into the five-person Dallas office of what was then Touche Ross. Specialising in energy consulting, Lattner has stayed with the firm his entire career, a time that included the merger of Touche Ross and Deloitte Haskins & Sells in 1989. Lattner works at the unit’s HQ in Manhattan.

 

Lattner cites several reasons why most large accounting firms were looking to discard their consulting functions back in 2003. One was that most businesses tend to reduce their use of consultants during and right after a recession, like the one that had occurred in 2001.

 

Around 2003, the industry had suffered a rare period of negative growth. But perhaps more importantly, the US Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which aimed to prohibit accounting firms from performing non-audit work for the same public firms they were auditing. Arthur Andersen, Ernst & Young and Price WaterhouseCoopers all shed or spun off their consulting arms as a result.

 

At Deloitte, an initial plan for a management buyout of the consulting unit was cancelled by the parent company’s partners at the 11th hour. Instead, Lattner was asked to reintegrate the consulting arm back into Deloitte and develop a strategy to seek contracts from the large pool of public companies – more than three-quarters of them – that did not hire Deloitte for auditing.
 
Lattner said the firm learned quickly how to negotiate the new rules. Consequently, links between the consultants and the tax-and-audit specialists proved to be an advantage, not a hindrance.

 

It is now standard practice to offer tax-related consulting advice to these non-auditing clients, Lattner adds, noting that one of the many areas in which Deloitte Consulting advises companies is how to comply with Sarbanes-Oxley.

 

Deloitte Consulting has also realised that consulting works best as part of a private firm or partnership instead of as a publicly traded company answerable to its shareholders. “If you don’t take care of your shareholders in a public environment, they sell your stock,” he says. He notes one rival, CapGemini, has seen the value of its purchase of Ernst & Young drop by some 90 per cent, according to Wall Street estimates.

 

Some of the most critical successes that Lattner and his management team were able to achieve involved making Deloitte Consulting a more attractive place to work, Lattner says, noting that one of the biggest problems he inherited as CEO was a high employee turnover rate of roughly 25 per cent.

 

Since then, the company has worked to improve not just the workplace environment, but also to offer new types of mid-career training. He says the steps have curbed annual turnover to about 14 per cent.

“We don’t build cars and we don’t have retail shops – our people are our assets and they vote every day with their feet – so we need to make sure in our organisation that we are [providing them] with the right amount of social activity, the right amount of work experience.”

 

According to Lattner, his company is diverse enough to weather the current storms in the US economy, including a new plunge in the financial markets and worries about mortgage foreclosures and rising oil prices. While banking and financial services firms have cut back on their use of consultants, he notes, other so-called contra-cyclical industries – such as pharmaceuticals and the public sector – have increased their spending in this area.

 

He also sees great prospects in his former specialty of energy consulting. “Oil and gas companies do not spend on consulting after the price of a barrel goes below $30. But it’s $70… There’s a lot of opportunity.”

Another area for future growth will be international consulting work. It has targeted the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – with the greatest emphasis now on India, where the Deloitte unit has a large pool of employees, including about 2,000 in Hyderabad and about 800 in Mumbai.
 
- Global Business Perspectives is distributed by the New York Times Syndicate
 
 
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