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04/04/2012

Scorned

Entrepreneurs don't like consultants. When you are looking for the reasons, you will encounter mistrust, psychological complexes – and the unplumbed depths of the human soul. Insights into a troubled relationship

 
It was transparency number 29 that gave away the young, smart consultant. Until then, says Stefan Egert, his analysis had been brilliant and his manner perfect. Dark-suited, the consultant presented one clever thought after the other in his transparencies. And Egert, today's chairman of the board of the family-owned company Sievert, had been captivated more and more. Click after click. Transparency after transparency.

Then, however, the illusion of a "specifically and very individually" prepared analysis burst like an overinflated balloon. Because as smart as the consultant from one of the really big consultancies might have been – he had forgotten one crucial little detail. And that's how Egert had to read, on transparency 29, not the name of his company but that of his competitor. The allegedly so very elaborate analysis – it had probably been nothing more than hurriedly recycled PowerPoint garbage.

Not only because of that experience, Egert no longer hires any large consultancies today. "They just have a pool of standard formulas and smother you in no time with heaps of transparencies." But, he says, they wouldn't have any antenna for small and medium businesses. Time and again, people in his workforce would have asked him what arrogant know-it-alls he had sent them again. By now, he is convinced: "They simply don't fit in with us."

It's something you can hear from companies in more or less the same way again and again. Although hardly any head of a company doubts that consultants are often highly intelligent people. Nonetheless, many rather give them a wide berth. According to an Allensbach survey, 43 percent of the companies with a workforce of up to 250 people never had a consultant on their premises. And even in the group of larger companies of up to 1,000 employees, every fourth head of company is dodging consultancies and never signed any contract. A remarkable rate. Because consultants are actually everywhere.

Altogether more than 91,000 of the friendly helpers in tailored suits are moving around in Germany. At conventions, they are the first to speak up in discussions and afterwards busily distribute their business cards. In an unending flow of management books, they try to make their teachings heard. They have thus penetrated major parts of the German economy. In DAX companies, they are part of everyday life. In 2011, sales in the consulting sector increased by 9.5 percent to more than 20 billion euros – and thus triple the increase of the gross domestic product.

Wall of mistrust
Only in the last bastion of resistance – in small and medium-sized enterprises – consultants still don't get ahead. Financial Times Deutschland had asked Heiner Kamps – the entrepreneur who has been managing since last year the business of the old patriarch Theo Müller and his dairy products group – what those two unconventional alpha males actually have in common. His response: "We both hate consultants."

Gerd Kerkhoff also tells of situations where the person vis-à-vis would often fold his arms as if to block or ward off something. Any direct eye contact would hardly be possible then. The Düsseldorf-based consultant does not like such situations. Actually, the head of the company would continue to listen to him. "But his body language already indicates a clear 'No'."

This wall of mistrust gets Kerkhoff annoyed. As opposed to major consulting groups such as McKinsey or Roland Berger, he says, he could quickly show measurable results in his particular niche of purchase optimization. Also, he would not artificially inflate his expertise; nor would he ever give clever recommendations and then be gone really fast. "We conduct supplier negotiations principally jointly with our clients which means we don't just give theoretical tips but we also subsequently implement them."

So then, is the general skepticism unfair which is voiced by many heads of small and medium-sized businesses? Do they hold an entire sector of the industry responsible for the mistakes of a few black sheep? And don't they deprive themselves of valuable know-how which they will be missing later on in competition with corporate groups and competitors from all over the world?

In any event, Bernard Krone, head of the same-name manufacturing company of agricultural machinery and utility vehicles, has been a devoted consultancy client for years. "Outsiders are not professionally blinkered", he says. Moreover, his company would get "access to the latest special knowledge". He had also called in Kerkhoff consultants already. "We had the feeling of not getting the best prices from our suppliers." For one year, a team of Krone employees and Kerkhoff consultants had been working on improvements. "We restructured our purchasing department and we obtain better terms today. The assignment had paid off."

It sounds so simple for Krone: Problem detected; consultant called in; problem solved. And: At the end of the day, more saved than spent for the consultancy. In theory, it should actually always be like with Krone. There, consultants can lower costs; optimize processes; provide impetus and inspiration. The manual of consulting in small and medium-sized enterprises says that, in view of the increasing division of labor and specialization of knowledge, a company "would actually have the obligation to obtain external knowledge".

Are some companies merely too tight-fisted to meet this "obligation"?

Kai Matthiesen knows both sides. The Metaplan consultant comes from an entrepreneurial family: His grandfather established the sausage factory Böklunder; his father a caravan forwarding company in which he himself had worked for a long time. "Entrepreneurs", says Matthiesen, "have very good reasons to consider consultants a strange species." Many of those consultants never had any entrepreneurial responsibility themselves. Moreover, they would frequently be called into major corporate groups only to actually justify decisions which had long been made already. And for such games, he says, small and medium-sized enterprises would have neither time nor money.

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[Text: Axel Gloger, Felix Rohrbeck and David Selbach ]