- Management consulting news
- 01 August 2015
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René Abate’s forty years of experience in strategy and organizational consulting make him a seasoned observer of the sector and of its evolution. A portrait of BCG’s senior advisor.
“My role as senior advisor? To share the experience I’ve gained from various industries and managerial issues, bringing forty years of remove to what has worked in the past, or what has not,” summarizes René Abate. A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées and of the Harvard MBA program, it was at the latter university that he discovered BCG’s unique positioning. “Its founder, Bruce Henderson, wrote for the internal review and each of his articles was analyzed in depth by the professors. I was seduced by his disruptive takes on corporate strategy,” he recalls. So much so that, upon his return to France in 1974, he promptly joined the firm’s Parisian office, which had opened a year earlier.
At that time, seven or eight consultants worked there, while McKinsey – the eternal rival whose very name René Abate is reluctant to pronounce – had sixty-odd staff members. BCG was very much focused on strategy at a time when its competitors were more concentrated on organizational consulting, and was thus able to make its mark. “At the end of the 1960’s, American firms – which had theretofore dominated the world – were confronted with new European and Japanese rivals and had to rethink the foundations of their strategy. The allocation of resources within that competitive context was the very basis for BCG’s strategic reflection and interventions,” says René Abate.
Levers for corporate leaders
In that setting, strategic consulting surged forward, propelled by the powerful ambitions of consultants witnessing the development of a brand new domain for consultancy. “In France, with companies being organized into business units, resources were within the hands of the profit centers that brought money in, which was an impediment to the development of new activities that were not immediately profitable. BCG provided these companies’ directors, who had been “hostages” of their most lucrative BUs, with levers and tools to help them think about the allocation of resources,” decrypts René Abate. BCG’s Parisian office progressively imposed its point of view, growing steadily until, a decade later, matching McKinsey’s scale.
At the same time, René Abate kept climbing the rungs of the trade. Five years after being named a partner in 1980, he took the head of the firm’s French business. “The company had been growing strongly, between 13 and 15% a year. And that hasn’t changed! Its size is multiplied by three every ten years,” he states proudly. In 1990 he was appointed as chairman of the firm’s European endeavors, which rapidly came to represent 50% of its worldwide activity, and subsequently as senior partner. “In that second period of my professional life, I wanted to continue to work for my clients. Within a firm like BCG, a leader’s credibility is based on their exemplarity and on the quality of the relations they have with their clients.” In 2006 René Abate decided to take some distance from consulting – he became senior advisor for BCG – and joined the boards of various companies: LFB, Carrefour, Atos… He then joined the Rothschild bank, again as senior advisor.
What were the most memorable evolutions during his time as a consultant ?
“Within BCG, change took place in a very continuous manner. Partnership, the commitment to mobilize our clients’ collaborators, trust… have remained pillars. But on the other hand recruitment has changed considerably, as today a full third of our hires are experienced 35 to 40-year-olds. We could not have integrated them thirty years ago, when we needed to consolidate the company’s culture,” he suggests. As for the industry’s prospects? He looks serenely to the future: “The industry will keep going as long as consultants bring new ideas to the table. In order to achieve this, consulting firms must become more multinational, be able to attract new talent with new skills, and assist in the implementation.
” As for the arrival – although he prefers to speak of a return – of a Big 4? “We have been hearing about this for 25 years, the Big 6 of the time had already made acquisitions in a number of countries. The proper attention is required, but I don’t really see any revolution there. Some firms are absorbed, but those are the ones already in difficulty. What the Big 4 are buying is direct contact with upper management in order to sell them other activities. But after a few years, strategy consultants tire of being high-level salespeople and go back to strategy,” he pronounces.
Gaëlle Ginibrière for Consultor.fr