You’ve got to be in it to win it, but who is going to win this consultant sector battle?
What do clients really want? A blockbusting, mega consultancy with the financial prowess, geographical reach and in-house sector expertise to service their every whim? Or a boutique experience from a familiar but relatively small and perfectly formed “A-Team” of old hands delivering from the depths of a bulging contacts book and years of knowhow? The firms in the middle are plentiful and increasingly seen as fodder for the growing larger tier. And the definition of this “squeezed middle” seems to broaden with every sizeable merger completed. As Hanif Kara says, medium-size seems to be getting bigger these days.
This week as the EC Harris partners approve the takeover from Arcadis - thought to be worth £125m - the debate over the role, size and independence of construction consultants has returned to the top of the agenda at a time when UK construction is shrinking and the economy is spluttering. Perhaps for the largest global clients the reassurance of strength in breadth is all important, but with it comes bureaucracy and the potential for a lack of consistent delivery and local service.
It’s clear the value of individuals and teams is all important in this equation - a consideration that could make Davis Langdon’s senior-level cull particularly unsettling for its business partners. In a wider sense though, will the continued demise of the equity partnership career path hinder ambitious recruitment plans and people development for the key players? It used to give them the edge. And how many entrepreneurs will fly the nests of corporates to develop niche propositions and deliver that personal touch to clients looking for differentiation
In a profession based on advice, the value of independence cannot be underestimated. But likewise, international contacts, access to key regions and the formation of sector tie-ups has created the equivalent of the Champions League super tier within the global advice sector. There simply is no denying that the impact of globalisation and breakneck speed of technological changes has altered the world of business forever.
So clients have an ever growing set of demands, that much is clear.
The big question is, can the UK consultant sector deliver? One interesting dynamic is that the commercial imperatives and ownership structures are not uniform across the firms in this sector and, in this current economic environment, there is no such thing as a risk-free move. Exciting, dynamic, turbulent times usually produce a set of winners and losers - and expect them to emerge sooner rather than later if the economic picture continues to cloud over.
Tom Broughton is Building’s brand director