When the first small partnerships tried to register themselves as consultants in China in the late 1990s, the Communist-ruled country did not even have a category for “management consultant” as a type of business.
Since then, Chinese consultancies have done a little too well. There are now hundreds across China, ranging in size from a few individuals to a dozen firms that have grown to about 1,000 people each in just a few years.
By contrast, McKinsey & Co employs 18,000 people globally and 500 researchers and consultants in Greater China.
Less than two decades after the sector began, China’s homegrown consultancies are positioning themselves for a shake-out that will leave only the strongest standing. Firms compete ferociously for contracts but too often fail to give clients any more than superficial advice, a development that industry veterans say is detrimental for everyone.
“They end up recruiting people wholesale, and then putting in very low bids to get business, so that quality drops and clients are reluctant to pay,” says Liu Jun, senior partner at Bexcel Management Consultants in Beijing. One of the earliest consultancies in China, Bexcel has expanded slower than the rest of the industry, and now numbers about 130 consultants and researchers.
Undaunted, another early entrant, Alliance PKU Management Consultants now has about 900 employees and plans to expand 10-fold, targeting 10,000 employees within the next five or six years. That is a management challenge even for a management consultant, acknowledges senior partner Fan Yong, but he says it is necessary to stay competitive in the coming shake-out.
“In the next 10 years, the degree of consolidation in the industry will definitely rise. A few big consultant firms will emerge, and it will be really hard for the smaller ones to survive,” Mr Fan says.
Scale is needed if the Chinese consultants want to continue to serve the biggest Chinese corporations, many of which already operate in dozens of countries.
China’s first wave of outward investment often stumbled against local labour laws, environmental regulations and other issues that companies were unaccustomed to dealing with at home.
The country’s huge state-owned enterprises now rely on feasibility studies before taking on international projects, and private companies are increasingly likely to do so too, says Ken Wang, who heads RBC Capital Market’s Asia investment banking business.
Alliance PKU has dipped its toe in the water with case studies of investment policies in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and Kazakhstan, but it is clear the sector as a whole needs much greater capacity to keep pace with China Inc’s outward push.
Some sectors, such as auto manufacturers, have been quick to employ foreign consultancies that combine global reach with Chinese staff, but local consultancies have found a niche with midsized Chinese outfits, says Adeline Pairault of Capgemini Consulting, which also offers services in the country.
Although they model themselves on McKinsey, the services offered by Chinese firms vary. China has restricted banks from lending to property developers and other private businesses for more than three years, so some Chinese consultants have become experts in advising their clients on the shifting sands of grey market financing.
Private bosses also turn to consultants for advice on how to pass on their business to the next generation.
Other Chinese consultants specialise in due diligence, warning clients off acquisitions or business partners with red flags that might have been missed by foreign firms used to a stronger regulatory environment. “Chinese society has a lot of unique characteristics. Not only the culture, but also the circumstances of its development, the political backdrop, and the set-up within companies. So a purely Chinese firm has some advantages here,” says Bexcel’s Mr Liu.
Chinese consultancies also have some uniquely Chinese problems. State-owned clients are big enough to generate a lot of business, but they are notoriously reluctant to pay for services.
The smallest consultancies often bid low to win work, but then struggle to get anything beyond the client’s initial deposit. Alliance PKU requires its clients to pay at each phase of the project to ensure there are no disputes at the end.
“The pay rate on our projects is very high. We’re at 95 per cent. This is something we are very proud of,” Mr Fan says.
Additional reporting by Zhao Tianqi
相比之下，麦肯锡(McKinsey & Co)在全球拥有1.8万名雇员，其中在大中华区雇佣了500名研究员和咨询顾问。
北京远卓咨询(Bexcel Management Consultants)高级合伙人刘军(见上图)表示：“结果是它们大批招人，以极低的报价赢得业务，导致服务质量下降，客户也不愿付钱。”远卓是中国成立最早的咨询公司之一，扩张速度不及业内同行，现约有130名咨询顾问和研究员。
同样较早进入咨询行业的北大纵横管理咨询公司(Alliance PKU Management Consultants)迎难而上，它现在拥有约900名雇员，计划扩张到现有规模的10倍，目标是在未来5至6年内将员工数量增至1万名。高级合伙人樊勇承认，即使是对管理咨询公司来说，这也是很大的管理挑战，但他认为，要在接下来的洗牌中维持竞争力，这样做是有必要的。
加拿大皇家银行资本市场公司(RBC Capital Market)亚洲投行业务主管Ken Wang表示，目前中国的大型国企在启动国际项目之前，会以可行性研究为依据，而私企也日益青睐这种做法。
凯捷咨询(Capgemini Consulting)的阿德琳?佩罗(Adeline Pairault)表示，汽车制造等领域动作迅速，聘请了业务遍及全球并雇佣中国员工的外国咨询公司，但本土咨询公司也找到了自己的利基市场——中国的中型企业。凯捷咨询也在中国设有业务。