How specialist consultants are making life difficult for the big players

Specialist consultancy firms are often stronger in their fields than the sector giants. An exclusive study shows where hidden champions score big – and how digitisation is mixing up the consultant market

Wojciech Bolesta crosses the room in the Würzburg start-up workshop amidst propped-up desktops and memo-plastered partition walls. With his dark jacket he stands out a little in this environment – the corporate consultant is just a guest here, you can tell just by looking at him.

As head of the Centre for Excellence in Digital Transformation of Stuttgart-based boutique consultancy firm TMG Consultants, Bolesta generally deals with major industry customers. But today he is visiting a start-up in Würzburg called Scoutbee, whose Managing Director Gregor Stühler is now standing before him in a hoodie emblazoned with the company’s logo. Scoutbee has developed a program that reviews global suppliers and their offers using artificial intelligence. Bolesta connected to Scoutbee through one of his consultancy customers, a major automotive corporation that is now using the company’s software to search for the best and most cost-effective offers for car parts.

Stühler explains what his product can do: “We analyse in an hour what would take a buyer months otherwise”. The Scoutbee boss summarises just as concisely the things that evaded him and his colleagues following the start-up’s launch: “In the beginning we had serious problems attracting attention to our product in the world of large corporations, simply because we did not come from that world.”

Bolesta on the other hand, the corporate consultant, is familiar with the structures of large industry customers. He know which doors need to be opened to introduce innovations like Scoutbee software in a globally operating corporation. “Success in industry 4.0 comes only with an understanding of industry 3.0”, says Bolesta. “We bring this understanding to the table and apply Scoutbee’s knowledge in a targeted manner.”

Forming networks, pooling expertise, sharing knowledge, introducing new technologies, working methods and business models within customer corporations in such a way that they are effective: Those are the keys to success whereby small-to-medium-sized consultancy firms like TMG can hold their own against global sector giants McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Bain & Company. Every three years the Scientific Society for Management and Consulting (WGMB) identifies the ‘Hidden Champions’ of the consultancy sector whose work in certain areas or disciplines is rated better than that of the three market leaders by more than 700 of the top managers from German industry surveyed. As a leading consultant in the manufacturing industry, this year TMG was among the 22 less well-known top performers presented exclusively by Capital.

Demand on record levels
“Demand for consultancy services is at a record high”, says Dietmar Fink, Professor of Economics at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences, who compiled the Hidden Champions Study together with WGMB Executive Director Bianka Knoblach for the sixth time. “Times of uncertainty are always good times for consultants”, says Fink knowingly. “They have an endless source of income.”

Consultancy firms are working at full capacity as a specific consequence of digitization. Whether in purchasing, where Scoutbee helps its customers, or in production or marketing and sales: No field has been left untouched by the breakneck speed at which technology is developing. Business models are being adapted, some sectors completely reinvented. New competitors are emerging and challenging the top dogs in a number of sectors because they are able to offer their services more quickly and cost-effectively thanks to innovative technology, and can approach their customers in a more direct and targeted manner.

“This is seeing a change in the consultant business too”, says Bianka Knoblach. “The focus is shifting from strategy to implementation.” When it comes to implementing innovation and and instigating change, hidden champions can bring their special strengths to bear. As well as skills in communication and the ability to act as part of a team, the top managers surveyed by WGMB valued the implementation strength of the 22 consultancy firms selected above all else. This has seen them move to the top of their field in 13 specialist disciplines including marketing and sales, innovation and growth as well as lean management and even succeed in toppling the biggest competitors from the top spot in seven sectors.
A dozen of these ‘Hidden Champions’ succeeded in qualifying once again – for example, the purchasing experts Kerkhoff Consulting and Horváth & Partners, the controlling and finance specialist. Not only did frontrunner Berylls Strategy Advisors once again qualify as the leading consultancy company in the automotive industry, the services provided by the Munich-based firm were also rated the best overall for the second year running.

TMG on the other hand was one of ten Hidden Champions that broke through for the first time this year. For Managing Director Darya Nassehi, this recognition for his company is also a sign that there is a shake-up currently underway in the sector: “Digitisation has democratised the consultant market”, he says. “Everyone will have to reposition themselves.” He goes on to explain that the current technological development dynamic means it no longer possible to meet all customer requirements with your own resources alone. He says that this is opening up new opportunities for consultants, who can develop solutions for their customers through cooperation with start-ups, but also scientists and research institutes...

4/22  - Purchasing and procurement
Kerkhoff (419 points): The work of the specialist purchasing, procurement and production management consultancy firm doesn’t end with the presentation of a concept. The experienced consultants guide customers in the implementation stage too. Year founded 1998; staff 51; turnover 12 M. Euros; references Agrana, Greiner, Hymer, Schwenk, Sievert, Vonovia, Cologne-Bonn airport, Flottweg and many others.

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