Friday, October 16, 2009

Boutique vs. General Management Consulting

I am by no means and expert on giving advice about all of the things that a generalist firm has to offer compared to a more niche consulting position, but after talking to a few folks who have had experiences at each of these types of places, I am finally starting to get an idea of what each job is all about.

Because I have a relatively strong health care background, I have only really been dealing with the boutique firms that specialize in health care, pharma, and biotech consulting. I have primarily dealt with 2 of these firms: Campbell Alliance and Health Advances.

The Campbell Alliance seems to be a little larger of the two organizations and has several offices around the country and internationally. The headquarters is in Raleigh, NC but they have regional offices in the following locations:

Boston, MA
New York, NY
Parsippany, NJ
Philadelphia, PA
Atlanta, GA
Chicago, IL
San Francisco, CA
Los Angeles, CA
London, UK

The last time I spoke with the recruiter for Campbell they seemed as if they were growing and would be hiring this next season; however, she was pushing the managed care consulting roles pretty hard so it looks like a lot of the opportunities they may have are in that space.

At this particular firm, they hire everyone in at the same level, as a consultant. This is equivalent to an analyst degree at another firm and is an entry level BS type role. While this might seem a little demeaning to someone with a PhD, MBA or other graduate degree (it did at first to me) there is a catch. While the large general management firms promote consultants every 2 years, at Campbell Alliance you are promoted as soon as you are "ready." That means you could potentially receive several promotions within your first year. I've done a little exploring on Linked-In and this appears to be true...a lot of people started with Campbell at one level and were promoted rather rapidly to a new position.

I also mentioned that I have been interacting a bit with Health Advances. This is a smaller group of maybe 50-ish consultants that solely focus on health care, biotech, and pharma. They are based in Waltham, MA. I had a great conversation with some of the consultants and one of the recruiters at the Harvard Biotechnology Club's career fair this last month and got a much better feel about their organization.

I was curious as to what kinds of business a smaller firm like this got...was it mostly small biotech or did they compete for large pharma business too? It appears as if they are a strong player in both markets, but they do a good amount of work in the small biotech/start-up space. This was exciting to me as I think that is where I might ultimately like to end up in the long term...developing strat-ups, building their strategy, developing strategic alliances, etc. I don't have any data to back this up, but it is my guess that these start-ups probably can't afford to bring a McK, BCG, Bain type and as a result working at these generalist firms might not give you the start-up experience if that's something you'd want.

The nicest thing I learned about this company was hearing more about their work model. They really don't travel all that much. At the beginning of each engagement, they meet with the client...learn about the problem, conduct the appropriate interviews, etc. Then they had back to the office in MA and work out a solution and don't return to the client site until the deliver the final solution. This is really a stark contrast compared to the larger generalist firms and makes a HUGE difference in your day to day lifestyle. The recruiter also told me that the typical work week is 50 hours and that weekends are always free. It seems like they may pay a little less than a McKinsey or BCG, but the trade off is in the free time and hours that you work for your money.

As a quick aside...LEK consulting also does most of their work from home and has significantly lighter travel schedules than some of the other large generalist firms.

So I've spent a lot of time talking about some of these boutique firms, but not much time talking about the larger generalist firms. When I initially considered general management consulting, I had this impression that you were required to work across a number of industries and that the "generalist experience" was encouraged. It turns out that this really isn't true. Every firm I've interviewed with has said they actually encourage you to specialize as soon as you feel you are ready. If I had been offered a position at BCG, I would have been working exclusively in health care! So for those of you who are worried about not getting to spend enough time in your "sweet spot" with a big 4 firm, don't worry!

I think the decision as to whether to go with a big generalist firm or a boutique comes down to 3 key factors:

1) lifestyle-travel requirements, time home, total hours worked/week
2) network- larger firms have a larger network when you leave
3)salary/benefits- McK, BCG, Bain probably pay a little bit better than the small guys


  1. Another point to consider is that the larger strategy consulting firms (McK, Bain and BCG) typically have better exit opportunities relative to boutiques. Brand power seems to be important in the consulting world.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. How did you find and research the boutique firms? For example, say I was interested in targeting some boutiques specializing in marketing and strategy for non-profits. How would I go about locating and researching both the major and minor players in that niche? Also, do you have any tips for how to size up a boutique to make sure it's legitimate, secures interesting project work with organizations you would like to consult for, and is well respected within the field? Finally, is it usually the case that people joining boutiques have more experience in general and more specialized experience in specific making it more difficult to gain entry if one is recently out of school? Do they usually only hire at the grad level and above or do they also hire undergrads and people with a few years of experience out of undergrad as a general rule of thumb?

  4. Boutiques are definitely more specialized...that's how they survive. Therefore, having some experience is often helpful to get your foot in the door. You are working in a specific sector so it stands to reason that you should know something about it. The firms I have applied to hire at both undergrad and grad levels, although you are applying for a different position depending on your level of education.

    As far as screening the boutiques, I don't know what to say. Talk to people who know about a specific firm you are interested in, interview with the firm, and keep an open might be an interesting experience to help a smaller firm grow.

  5. Excellent Write Up! General management is very important thing for those people who want to start a new business.
    General Management Expert

  6. Great post! Recently at my office we've been considering some outside management consultancy and readings like this really do help out, thanks again!

  7. Putting deep expertise aside (I'm going to assume the boutiques win there), does anyone have a perspective on which healthcare boutiques have the capability to delivery long-term strategy work at par with a McK/Bain/BCG? Thanks.

  8. Nice post. Thanks for sharing it. It's a very valuable information for people who need management consult. I have something to share with you a very good management consultant for business and personal.
    Infinum Growth Insight - A Management Consultant Firm