Wall of silence

After years of transparency, consultancies are now clamming up. Business developments are kept secret and new company strategies are disclosed with delays only. What's more: The new generation of consultancy managers is shunning the public.

By Axel Gloger

It's finally time again in a few weeks – for consultancies to get their little stars. But unlike Guide Michelin, the restaurant and travel guide, their stars don't present any merit, but rather a demerit. A consulting company appearing with a star in the list of the top 25 shuns the public eye: "Turnover or number of personnel estimated in parts", that's the remark provided for 14 of the 25 service providers – a remark made by Thomas Lünendonk, publisher of the annual consultancy ranking. Actually, it's not a must for consultancies to report their internal affairs. Strict and compulsory disclosure only exists for corporate groups listed on the stock exchange. But silence in the consultancy sector has been a growing trend: For years, consultancies had been transparent; as of late, however, they are playing their cards ever closer. One example of the sealed lips policy is provided by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Until last year even, Christian Veith, head of BCG's German establishment, had explained their business developments in an annual talk. This year, their practice has changed: Except for a brief press text, the number two on the German market keeps mum. The contents of this message very clearly illustrate the new strategy of retreating from the stage: BCG says more about the doubtlessly impressive social commitment of its consultants than about the BCG business development on the German market. Their company spokeswoman also left unanswered two interview requests by the FTD on that subject.


Moreover, well-known consultants disappeared from the scene one after the other: Talk show experienced gentlemen – like Jürgen Kluge (McKinsey), Tom Sommerlatte (Arthur D. Little), Roland Berger and, most recently, Hermann Simon (Simon-Kucher) – ended their active consulting careers. Their place has now been taken by consulting managers of a different type. "Distinctive personalities have become rare", says the market expert Ehren. The new people would certainly do their job well, but the public at large would not be their thing. Sometimes they would be technocratic, at other times rather analytic. "For their distribution, they forego any big PR. Their broadcasting channel is small-group networking", says the insider Wilkes.


Since the mid-1990s when they had begun to turn towards the public, the consultancy businesses increased from € 7 billion to currently nearly triple that amount. But it has not become more interesting with it, finds PR consultant Ehren: "The percentage of brilliant strategy projects is dwindling." And one doesn't like to talk about the many simple implementation projects.

Against deceptions and lies
But there are also exceptions. Kerkhoff Consulting grants access and insights which are otherwise rare to get. Since the year 2004, the procurement optimizer annually submits its management report which may be perused by everybody. Its contents go beyond that which is required by commercial law: Thus, in rare candor, the Düsseldorf-based consultants report on their business situation, on important trends, their personnel situation and their risks. Moreover, balance sheet as well as P&L account are presented. Since the business year 2009, Kerkhoff Consulting publishes an annual report. Why so much transparency? There is a lot of deception and lying in the industry, says the owner Gerd Kerkhoff. That's why he would want to set an example: "Clients, partners and applicants should know who we are and where we stand." He says he wouldn't want to fool or deceive anybody but, instead, would rather set out to gain trust. It seems he's been successful: "We are getting extremely positive feedback on our annual report", says the purchasing consultant.