Consulting is a reflection of derived demand, mirroring the state of the economy and business confidence.
As economic activity picked up after the second Covid wave, top consulting firms witnessed record growth in client engagements.
“Our best year ever! We have tripled our business in the last five years despite the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Karan Singh, MD, Bain & Co. “And we have been sold out since September last year.”
Industry leaders say that given the demand, the top three firms might close FY22 with combined gross revenues between Rs 5,500 crore and Rs 5,800 crore and 225-235 partners despite the Covid impact.
Client briefs now revolve around digitisation, technology disruption, rethinking supply chains, restructuring costs, profitability, M&A and PE transactions, and adapting to new ways of working.
“The briefs are all about ‘winning the discontinuity’. Every market is seeing a polarisation—the difference between leaders and laggards is becoming larger. We are helping a lot of companies embrace the change–be it by restructuring, streamlining cash flows, embedding technology or creating the next leg of growth,” said Gautam Kumra, Chairman (Asia), McKinsey & Co.
Right now, the consulting firms are witnessing two-speed demand from India Inc.
There’s heavy demand from IT services, tech companies, financial services, healthcare, government and public service companies and moderate to high demand from industrials, hospitality, auto, energy and steel.
“Last year, there was a slowdown in demand during one quarter, but the need for consulting multiplied manifold during the pandemic,” said Alpesh Shah, Managing Director & Senior Partner, BCG India. “Almost 70–80 per cent of assignments in the last few months have been long-term assignments.”
As clients are demanding more tech-led, data-driven solutions, the white-shoe firms have had to invest aggressively in IP, new technology, hiring new experts, and building new products.
“Our clients are being very bold and reimagining their businesses. We will have to do the same to be at the cutting edge of the advisory business. Times of turbulence are often crucibles of opportunity,” said Singh of Bain.
Since consulting is a difficult business to scale up, most firms have continued hiring from B Schools, top colleges, and laterally through the pandemic to create capacity to service growing demand.
Between the three consulting majors, the firms would have added more than 350 people to their India business by the end of FY 22.
“We have kept up the tempo in hiring even during the pandemic because creating capacity in consulting takes time and we want to be future-ready,” said Shah of BCG.
The top consultants are still managing to corner a high share of large transformational projects, but they are also increasingly facing competition from the large Big Four consulting practices, which are offering multiple services for longer periods at lower rates.
“The Big Four are now offering an integrated value proposition. We will partner with clients in tech led transformation on all fronts—revenue, cost, and operating model efficiencies, ” said Rohan Sachdev, Consulting leader, EY India
As demand picks up, pricing has also firmed up, and consultants are now back to charging pre-Covid rates.
After the first wave, some clients wanted a 10-15 per cent ‘Covid discount’ and some payments were delayed, but that went away quickly.
And as infection rates drop, vaccination rates go up, and clients open offices, consultants say that between 30 and 40 percent of projects are being executed onsite as part of a hybrid delivery model.
But leaders concur that the rebound has been much better than expected.
“Last April, it was as if the profession hit a wall. But now I am positively surprised at where we are today. It’s been a remarkable bounce-back,” said Kumra of McKinsey.