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  Our management consultancy columnist, Mick James, this week talks to Andrew Veal, director at Troika, about the company's commitment to doing things differently.
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When the big consultancy model doesn't work

It's my belief that we're living through an era of unprecedented creativity and choice in consulting models, with the flourishing of a myriad of small-to-medium sized consultancies. What's also intriguing is how many of these companies trace their roots back to "Big N" mainstream consultancies, and have shaped their offering through a conscious desire to offer something distinctive and different.

One such is financial services specialist Troika, started in 1998 by ex-Andersen consultants who thought that "the model of massive consultancy projects where you can't remember at the end what you started off to do at the beginning wasn't the best way of doing things," as Troika director Andrew Veal puts it. The founding coincided with a period when the Life and Pensions industry was going through a period of major systems rebuilding and clients were also beginning to question the big consultancy model.

"In the early years we were very successful," says Veal. "There was a lot of demand for small teams to do big things-clients didn't want 50 graduates to transform them. They realized they only needed three or four and could hire the 50 programmers quite cheaply."

Troika's growth enabled it to grow quite quickly, and initially its consultants came almost exclusively from "Big N" backgrounds.

"Almost everyone we recruited had been there and had the view that consultancy was a very interesting career, but not in the big firm model," says Veal. These were gradually joined by people from the financial services industry, until now the mix is fifty-fifty, a ratio Veal says he is happy with.

"I don't think we want the balance to go beyond that because as a firm we go to some lengths to differentiate ourselves, and you can only appreciate that if you've been in consultancy," he says.

This differentiation is principally about work-life balance, which in turn rests on setting clear expectations with both consultants and clients.

"We don't allow our people to be away from home five days a week," says Veal. "We will say to clients, four nights in a hotel is too much, you've got to let them go home, and most clients say that's nice to hear. We don't expect people to work all night or at weekends either-some projects require some late nights but it's not a cultural assumption."

This has helped Troika recruit and retain staff for who consultancy might have otherwise become unsustainable as a career. The firm also uses a significant associate network to help balance its resource planning:

"When we started we were quite sceptical of companies that seemed to be just networks of associates, and most of the people who work here really work here," says Veal. "But there are also quite a lot of people who we know quite well and who don't want a proper job, and it's healthy for our business to have 15-20% of the headcount that's not on the payroll."

Troika's also has a recruitment arm ResourceCo, which grew out of its own use of contractors for implementation work:

"In 2003 there were a lot of contractors flooding the market, and we were getting quite a lot of enquiries from people who wanted a body to do a job, know us quite well and liked the idea that we had a number of contractors that we knew and used," says Veal. "It's been fantastic-we use ResourceCo to do all our own recruitment, and also whenever we need a specialist associate."

A final string to Troika's bow is a benchmarking service, which adds a fee-based stream to its consulting revenues.

After its early rapid growth, Veal says Troika is now aiming for a "nice and steady" 20-25% a year. After 2003 the firm "completed the set in retail" by diversifying into retail banking and general insurance. Veal says the firm is now considering a move outside retail into investment management, but although it has no intention to move outside financial services this gives plenty of room to develop Troika's offering.

"The financial services industry is constantly evolving," says Veal. "One new area we are looking at is human performance improvement-the emotional side of change. You can do process redesign and systems improvement but there's actually a lot you can get by giving people the environment to get the most out of them."

Since its foundation, Troika's positioning has been firmly grounded in being a "roll up your sleeves" consultancy that bridges the gap between strategy and implementation:

"One way we classify ourselves is in terms of 'think-translate-do'," says Veal. "Translate is where we started: what to do next, how to do it, how many people will be involved and at what cost."

As relationships have developed, however, the firm increasingly finds itself asked to pitch for strategy work against the likes of McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group.

"Even when we do strategy work we're different in how we do it," says Veal. "Without wishing to offend anyone in strategy, strategy consultants tend to consider all possible options and outcomes to the highest degree of logical perfection. Our approach is that only three of those outcomes are in any way likely and we concentrate on those."

Veal says that this approach has given Troika a very good record of client loyalty:

"Our clients say things like, for a consultancy they're remarkably useful to have around the place," he sys. "A lot of clients have had bad experiences with consultancies, they just didn't enjoy it."

On the consultant side, Troika also enjoys a high degree of loyalty, and has only lost two consultants to other consultancies in 9 years. As the firm approaches its 10th birthday this creates its own challenges in terms of finding new challenges and opportunities for its staff. However, Veal believes that Troika can continue for a long time as an independent community of like-minded people who enjoy working with each other.

"We are completely independent of anyone, we own ourselves, we owe no money and we have no alliances with the provider of any solution," says Veal. "When we are asked for advice we are free to give it, we have no solution to push and we're as likely to tell you not to follow the latest fad as to do a big-project. A lot of people think that's what consultancy is."


All views expressed in this article are those of Mick James and do not necessarily reflect the views of Top-Consultant.com and Consultant-News.com.

Contact Mick with your views or suggestions at: [email protected]
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