Strategy consulting is all about assisting clients with high-level big picture issues, such as deciding whether to acquire a competitor, looking across a whole business to find out where costs can be cut, or working out how a particular business area can be expanded.
Management consultants primarily help their clients to improve the way in which they operate, which could mean examining how a business is organised, how it could become more efficient, or how it can implement changes and tackle potential risks.
Technology consultants advise their clients on how IT can help them deal with challenges they face or improve the way they perform, which could mean providing a new software tool, or advising a business on how it can adapt its way of working to take advantage of cloud computing facilities.
The Big Three
There are three big names at the top of the strategy consulting world: Bain & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey, all of which employ many thousands of staff spread across the world. Though they have broad expertise, these three firms are particularly well-known for strategy consulting.
Experience at any Big Three firm is extremely highly regarded in the consulting and wider corporate world, and opens the door to many other opportunities. However, the success of these firms and their employees relies on their ability to recruit the brightest graduates from the world's most elite universities, so winning a place at a Big Three firm is very tough - but not impossible if you have the abilities and determination to do so.
Bain & Company
Bain & Company was founded in 1973 when Bill Bain left rival firm Boston Consulting Group to set up his own firm, and the London office was opened in 1979. Since then, the firm has grown to over 5000 employees. As well as pure-strategy consulting, the firm is strong in advising on the viability, structure and financial aspects of buying and selling companies, an area of work which Bain pioneered. Bain is unusual among consultancy firms in having a woman, Orit Gadiesh, as its chairperson.
Boston Consulting Group
Boston Consulting Group grew out of the consulting arm of a Boston bank, becoming an autonomous company in 1975. The firm is known for the "BCG matrix", a way of analysing companies which enables them to decide where best to allocate their cash, a method which was highly original when first introduced and has since been emulated by many other firms. BCG is also particularly well-regarded for its workplace environment, frequently appearing in Consulting Magazine's Best Firms to Work for list.
McKinsey & Co. is perhaps the biggest name in consulting and holds the greatest market share of the Big Three. It's known for its emphasis on keeping its client list confidential, but is thought to have strong relationships with many Fortune 100 companies, and with many other corporate and governmental organisations across the world. These links provide a great springboard for its employees' future careers - McKinsey has produced more CEOs than any other organisation and its list of alumni ranges from Morgan Stanley head James Gorman to Chelsea Clinton.
Other leading strategy specialists
Booz & Company
The firm traces its DNA back to Edwin Booz, credited by some as being the creator of the management consultancy profession, and Booz & Company is well-regarded to this day for bringing new ideas into the field. Until 2008, the business that is now Booz & Company was part of rival firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
Founded in London in 1983 by three ex-Bain partners, L.E.K. is the one of only a few elite consultancy firm to have UK roots, although it has since merged with a US consultancy. It's a generalist strategy consultancy with clients across a range of industries and particular expertise in M&A advice.
Monitor was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1983 by a group of Harvard Business School-based entrepreneurs. The firm is known for its academic and theory-led approach to management consulting - founder Michael Porter developed the influential Porter's Five Forces method of analysis.
Consultancy firm Oliver Wyman is part of global professional services and insurance organisation Marsh & McLennan and is divided into two divisions, one focusing on strategy consulting, and the other for its expertise in advising financial services clients. The firm was founded in 1984 by two ex-Booz, Allen and Hamilton partners.
Roland Berger was founded in Munich in 1967, and is one of the world's only leading consultancy firms to have European origins, although its eponymous founder started his career with Boston Consulting Group. The firm specialises in strategy consulting, particularly for retail clients, and is especially strong in the European market.
The Big Four
Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC are the world's largest professional services firms, with many thousands of employees and offices across the world, including large networks of offices in the UK. In the UK, all of the Big Four firms offer their clients some strategy, management and technology consulting services (alongside a wide range of other kinds of assistance), though they're best-known for their management consultancy work.
If you join one of these firm's consultancy graduate training programmes you can expect to work with good quality clients and to receive excellent training.
US-headquartered Deloitte offers management consultancy services in a wide range of areas including human resources, M&A and operations. Deloitte was also the official provider of professional services, including some consulting work, for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Ernst & Young
UK-headquartered Ernst & Young's advisory division offers its clients advice on areas including performance improvement, risk management and IT. Ernst & Young will serve as an official supporter and exclusive provider of consulting services for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
KPMG, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands, has a large presence in the UK, though it's the smallest Big Four firm worldwide. Its consultancy services include a management consulting practice and advice on risk, transactions and corporate restructuring.
London-headquartered PwC has the largest international network of all the Big Four firms, with offices in 154 countries, and is also the largest in terms of revenue. The consultancy services it offers include advice on strategy, operations, finance, risk, change management, project management and technology.
Other leading firms
Accenture started life as the consulting arm of a now dissolved major professional services firm, Arthur Andersen. It's now the largest consultancy firm in the world and focuses on technology, management and outsourcing-related work. It's noted for its public sector work - for example, the firm has an ongoing relationship with the US Navy.
Capgemini has strong roots in IT, but its management consultancy offering was boosted by its 2000 acquisition of Ernst & Young's then consulting business. The firm is headquartered in Paris.
The founder of A.T. Kearney had a hand in the founding of rival McKinsey before leaving to set up the firm that bears his name. Today's A.T. Kearney is best known for its management consultancy practice, and a 1995 merger with technology specialists EDS means the firm is very strong in this area too.
PA Consulting Group
PA Consulting is a global IT, technology and management consultancy firm with clients across a wide range of industries. It was founded in Britain and remains headquartered in London. Unusually for a consulting firm, the business is employee-owned.
Best of the rest
Alongside the firms listed above, the consulting industry also contains a number of slightly smaller firms who undertake work of similar types to their larger competitors. These firms also offer graduates excellent business experience and career prospects.
Firms in this category include Arthur D. Little, Mars & Co, Mitchell Madison Group, OC&C Strategy Consultants and Value Partners Management Consulting. Most of these firms are particularly strong in certain industry sectors, but also work for a broad range of clients.
The consultancy business also includes firms that focus on giving advice to companies and other organisations in specific fields, for example:
- HR: Mercer, Towers Watson
- Pensions: Hymans Robertson
- Pharmaceuticals: IMS Consulting Group
- Remuneration: Kepler Associates