Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Finding the Magic in a Consulting Career

Roger Kallock

Sometimes an organization continues to live long after its charter has expired. Cleveland Consulting Associates (CCA) gave up its name to CSC, its current owner, in 1995. However, to the first generation of supply chain strategists and their clients CCA remains a name packed with meaning.

Founded in 1974 by consultants Jim Spira, Roger Kallock, Jim Blaser and Keith Helferich, CCA took a rigorous and comprehensive approach to operations analysis, featuring advanced decision-support modeling in its consulting process. Spira, Kallock and Blaser, all in their early thirties, came to the firm with prior consulting and operations experience from such places as A.T. Kearney, Ernst & Young, and Procter & Gamble. Helferich, an operations research scientist, contributed analytical muscle, developing one of the first and most enduring mathematical approaches to optimizing distribution network strategy. Another early member, David DeRoulet, rose to the position of President of the firm and is now a leader in Deloitte Consulting's Consumer Business consulting practice.
"We wanted to move forward more aggressively using computer capabilities to integrate the functional silos within physical distribution into what we would today call the supply chain. We recognized that the computer would allow us to evaluate a lot of options quickly. It gave us a foot in the door," said Kallock in a 2003 interview.

According to Jim Spira, "Operationalizing strategy is about developing links between the buy, make, move and sell functions of a company, and tightly aligning them with their competitive strategy."
By 1981 the firm had more than thirty members. As the company grew, it set its targets on Fortune 500 manufacturers, as well as major distributors and retailers. A London office was established in the mid-80's to support work at Guinness and then other clients. The firm added both to its capabilities in operations research and its office footprint when it acquired Analysis, Research and Computation, Inc., (Austin, TX), headed by G. Terry Ross, in 1984 and Optimal Decision Systems, Inc., (Cincinnati, OH), which had been founded by Richard Murphy and Tom Thompson, from Schneider National in 1988. With the acquisition of Paragon Consulting Group in 1991, headed by the late Carl Blonkvist, the firm established its credentials more broadly in the area of operations strategy.

In the late 1980's ownership changed, but operating control remained in the hands of the principals. The company attracted the attention of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, which acquired it in 1987 as part of its strategy to become a powerhouse in professional services. In 1989 Saatchi returned its focus to advertising and CCA management helped engineer the second sale of the firm to Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), which continued to promote the CCA brand until early 1995.

While the firm never had more than about 100 professionals, it developed an unusually strong reputation among logistics professionals, commanding rates that rivaled those of the top strategy consulting firms. This reputation was due in no small part to the work of an exceptional marketing staff, including Julia Marlowe Kirby (now a senior editor at Harvard Business Review) and Robert Baginski (who later headed marketing at CSC, Accenture, and Satyam).

In 1990 Kallock was awarded the Distinguished Service Award by the Council of Logistics Management (now CSCMP), an award given annually to an individual who has made significant contributions to the art and science of logistics management, considered by many to be the highest honor in the field.

The firm weathered some setbacks, most notably the defection of a small, but significant cadre in 1989 to form the seed for the Andersen Consulting logistics practice. The business downturn in 1991 required the first major reduction in force, taking with it a number of promising colleagues. In adversity, however, the firm offered unusual opportunities for rising stars to build the second generation of leadership.

Where was the magic? It is a recurring question for the alumni of the firm at their biannual reunions. And it is not an idle one. Many, if not most of the alumni have continued consulting careers with leading roles at CSC, A.T. Kearney, Accenture, AlixPartners, Booz Allen Hamilton, Capgemini, Deloitte Consulting, Diamond Technology, EDS, IBM, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, and many smaller firms. Inevitably we remember CCA as the model of a happy and profitable firm that succeeded on a number of levels:
  • Management followed clear strategic intent in selecting offerings, clients and talent
  • Talent and skill were prized over pedigree and intellectual property
  • Teams were organized into topic-related "practices," each responsible for selling and delivering its own work
  • Consultants worked "in the trenches" with clients, developing deep operations expertise to complement their analytical approaches
  • We had fun together
Strategically, CCA operated nearly exclusively within a well-defined niche, offering only those services that it could deliver with confidence. Marketing was primarily through reputation and participation in trade conferences, though in the early years principals sometimes needed to feed the mill with cold calls. Marketing staff at first concentrated on sales proposal support, creating thoughtful copy and distinctive appearance for written materials placed before prospects. As professional writers joined the firm in the late 1980's CCA was able to produce targeted mailings featuring provocative issue papers.

Contracts with clients were clear and simple, usually offering a well defined set of activities (deliverables) for a fixed fee. There were no hidden fees, such as markups of expenses, nor undisclosed side deals with software providers. Consulting management participated directly in the delivery of the work, taking personal responsibility for the outcome of the projects and freeing staff from worry about the political ramifications of their recommendations.

Unusual care was taken in hiring consultants, with every new hire personally interviewed by at least four members of the consulting staff. Three criteria were paramount: (1) did the person have genuine expertise in at least one relevant area; (2) was he or she smart and adaptable; and (3) would this person play well with others.

This last criterion was unusually important, because teams generally ate together on the road and consultants frequently got together informally as well. In small groups at Moose O'Malley's and the Barking Spider or in large ones at Roger's and Gail's annual picnic, we and our friends and spouses traded quips and stories and inside jokes, many involving male pattern baldness. We fielded teams for softball and basketball and fantasy football. The Plum Fantasy Football League still convenes in a Cleveland training room, more than twenty years after its founding; some of its coaches now fly in for the annual draft.

We came to believe that it was standard business practice when Ivan Foster, Director of HR, would drop in on a new member of the firm to present a copy of Dress for Success. Engineers from Big 10 schools often needed a fairy godmother to prepare them for the consulting ball. In serious cases, like my own, Ivan would take us to his tailor, The Clothes Horse, to be outfitted with our starter suits and ties.

Consultants learned and practiced their craft through apprenticeship, trial and error. Every consulting manager expected to tear up an apprentice's first deck. Once past that hard lesson, new consultants learned quickly to adapt to the style and methods of their project managers. Officers imposed the same discipline on project managers. If a client was not satisfied that the team had delivered on its expectations, the team was redirected to the tasks, usually over a series of long days and nights, until the firm was satisfied that it had done all that could be reasonably expected.

The approach placed an unusual level of reliance on the quality of management and instruction dealt out by the project leader. In those cases where the project manager had devised a poor plan or a badly conceived contract with the client, disaster would befall the project team. Eleven-hour days would stretch to sixteen or more and weekends would be spent in the office.

The economics of the model favored steady and profitable, but not explosive growth. With the firm focused in a relatively narrow niche, it was difficult to maintain continuous, multi-year relationships with all but the largest clients. As the fifth anniversary of the firm's acquisition approached, CSC management saw the potential to leverage the talent of its supply chain unit in larger, more systems-oriented engagements. CCA management found itself engaged in an endless series of discussions both internally and with its parent about the future of the firm's operating model.

Some chose the new path of adaptation and integration; others voted with their feet. But everyone looked back with fondness and some regret as the tribe dispersed.

Thanks to Terry Ross and Bob Baginski for their contributions to this article.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You left out an important part of the CCA success story -- Tod Roberts, who served as writer, editor, and the first Director of Communications (1983-1987). He set the standards for later work by others in communications.