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Business Of Consulting: 'Big Four' Eye MBA Talent For Reach Into Consultancy

Accounting firms reassess business strategies in mad dash for consulting clients.

Wed Aug 12 2015

A job at a big professional services firm is not a hard sell for most graduates but it is still striking how many the combined forces of KPMG, EY, Deloitte and PwC draw into their mitts.

As the “big four” accounting firms move away from their audit roots and into more lucrative advisory work, fresh jobs abound in everything from strategy to public sector consulting.

“All the accounting firms are significantly growing their advisory practices,” says Stephane Ponce, global consulting lead for career development at INSEAD, the international business school.

The firms are reassessing their business strategies and are in a mad dash for consulting clients. While combined audit revenues for the big four have shrunk by $5 billion over five years, consulting has boomed, with revenues increasing by $16 billion over the same period.

The big four are investing heavily in new talent, as they use their brands and existing audit client relationships to offer full-service work, becoming one-stop-shops for corporations. EY has been one of the most aggressive. Over the past two years the company has snapped up the Parthenon Group and Integrc, both boutique consulting firms.  

Radhika Chadwick, a partner at EY, says there is enormous potential to increase the firm’s talent pool. “We are hiring up and down the organization and the most demand is for senior-level individuals,” she says.

A renewed desire among business to spend on consultants is fanning the flames. Navigating increasing regulation and keeping pace with digital innovation has proved to be a challenge.

Mazhar Hussain, a director at KPMG, says digital is a huge growth area across industries, with clients scrambling to deal with data, analytics and to form long-term tech strategies.

“Seven years ago the iPhone didn’t exist and we all used Nokia phones,” he laughs. “Now that acceleration is happening at an expedited rate.”

Big data has been one of the big disruptors. “Data and analytics has become part of the fabric of how we do business,” says Matthew Guest, head of Deloitte’s digital strategy practice for EMEA. “The tools are becoming to us what the office productivity tools — word processing and spreadsheets — were to the previous generation.”

But the difficulty in finding talent to deal with the digital deluge has spurred contest among the top firms for the brightest graduates. “We are seeing high demand for our students — all of the big four firms recruit on campus,” says Laurence Verbiest, an associate director at the Georgetown McDonough MBA Career Center. “Digital skills are one of many that are in demand.”

Some have resorted to buying management consultancies with ready-made specialists. Over the past three years, Deloitte acquired boutique strategy house Monitor Group, and PwC agreed to buy Booz and Company, a mid-tier firm now branded as Strategy&. “There has certainly been a lot of growth and M&A activity,” says Stephen Pidgeon at the Tuck School of Business.

In each case the acquisition has boosted demand for consultants, he says: “These companies are competing more and more with the ‘big three’ — McKinsey, Bain and BCG.”

While the big four auditors have expanded their advisory practices, the incumbent consulting firms have also grown their service offerings. As well as the three market leaders, ECG Consultants, ZS Associates, and A.T. Kearney are doing much to attract top talent, says Chris Weber, associate director for careers at UCLA Anderson School.

However, he is in no doubt about the shifting job opportunities for his students with the big four: “The landscape for consulting is changing rapidly.”