Oct 2010     

Interview : John Furth, President, AMCF

In December 2009 the 63 rd AMCF Annual Meeting in New York was the right moment to meet for the first time with John Furth, the new AMCF president. As the next "Global Leadership Forum" to be held in New York is now approaching and as its satellite conference in Paris, the European Leadership Forum, is just a few weeks ahead we felt it was the right time to update our recordings and to introduce John Furth, whose acquaintance with Europe is not new, to our readers…

John, you are the new President of the AMCF, the Association of Management Consulting Firms, and your expertise has been so far precisely within the consulting field where you have had a long experience with big names such as Roland Berger or Accenture, notably in Europe and Asia before returning to Roland Berger, the largest European consultancy, and finally joining in January 2009 the AMCF board as President. However, people in France and a few in Europe don't know you yet !  Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

John Furth : I see that you already know it very well [laughter]. I started my career with Roland Berger Strategy Consultants and my biggest project was with the European Commission. That is the link with Europe. So basically I worked for the European then I boarded to Japan. So my career has been very international.

And you are the one man who set-up the New York office of Roland Berger…

John Furth : That's right ! In 1996.

Does it mean that as the president of the association you will be very  open to European firms ?
John Furth : Sure, very much. We already have members from Europe. Historically we developed the activity quite a long time ago and we have European members such as Capgemini, Algoé, BPI, long time practitioners, and many other consultancies originating from Europe : Deloitte, Ineum [now Kurt Salmon]…and I would say from all over the world with names big like TCS…

Will you also be keen to develop more activities in Europe and the rest of the world?

John Furth : Well, we are very America focused. However we developed activities in the world like meetings, forums in Europe. Asia as well…And as we have members in Europe, they mainly consider their activity in Europe. But here we are still primarily America focused.

In 2003, Lanny Cohen, the then Chairman of the annual meeting reminded us about the history of the association which started in 1929, the year of the big recession. He depicted the structure of the membership with the strategists gathering at the beginning, the relay through the management firms and finally the "coming in" of the big IT firms and the BPO "outsourcers" at the end of the 20th century. What might be the next kind of company joining in the association?

John Furth : We have niche players, local niche players in marketing, communication, public relation, organization, financial services, healthcare, real estate etc. So we have niche players "and" big players, large companies. This is very specific. We do have at the same time large and small companies.

But despite the crisis, numerous new members are coming in at the moment, nearly one each month or so…

John Furth : That's right. New ones of different kinds, niche players and also former large members that feel comfortable at coming back to the conference and forums. PwC, TCS, Mercer LLC…. Among the niche players we have Campbell Alliance (based in Raleigh NC) specializing in the healthcare and biotechnology industries; Gray Matters from Chicago, specializing in training on commercial methodologies for intellectual services; Target team (based in Boston) whose solutions are used by more than 40 different consultancies; PepperCom, a strategic communication agency; also PDN from London, a training group as well as Exec Com from NewYork City. And finally I would mention the Hokenson Group, a business development and strategic alliance consultancy from Washington DC. At the moment of the coming European Forum we have 48 member firms (54 with MCG subsidiaries, the Management Consulting Group). This also includes a new category of "Start-ups" which are very small 2 or 3 man firms that are just starting their growth plans.

How do you see the AMCF today ? Is it an elite club as it is seen from Europe?

John Furth : It is not a club. It is a place where people come to work together. We are much more than a club and we are definitely not a closed club. We have new sorts of category, events and services.

Among your first acts as new president has been the coming out of a new website. What about this platform? Is it a new tool for your members ?

John Furth : Yes. We developed it with a team from Capgemini. It relies on Joomla technology and new functionalities appear each month. We also have members only sections. 

A few years ago people at the AMCF annual meeting, especially from the BCG, noticed that we had not observed recently any new idea in management and consulting fields. After the Y2K years all ideas such as Quality, Reengineering, e-Business, BPO, Offshoring, as well as Coaching, or Agility in the HR field looked already part of history with no replacement in sight. What's your feeling about that ?

John Furth : At the moment we don't have a topic to capitalize on. New ideas are limited to specialties. I don't think that anyone at the moment sees any major topic, any major idea.  People are restructuring, developing abroad, but you are right and the people at the meetings were right in observing this lack of new concepts.  This is not to say that consultancies would not have big ideas kept secret within the firm but that no big ideas have permeated the industry. However I would observe that people are working hard at peer review meetings and affinity group to compensate for this lack of big methods or guidelines and I think they are trying to find collaborative solutions more than revolutionary ones.

Is this the reason why you choose David Maister as the 2009 Annual Meeting keynotes lecturer? And wasn't that choice a little bit risky for the new president as we know David Maister as a man who in strategic circumstances has always had a straight talk ?

John Furth : At the moment David Maister is one of the best three or four most important thinkers and speakers in the field of consulting industry, with a very people-oriented approach and one who is not just issued from academic consulting. He is very open-minded and he is exactly the right man at the right moment. So it has nothing to do with risk and he is very well known by the membership. And this year the meeting's title was "An industry in Change", so he and Ritchard Metzler were the right men for this 2009 meeting. Richard has been with the association for about 30 years, very protective, and David Maister for me is excellent, brilliant, and Richard is exceptional to us. They are definitely the two best people for this year of change. So there were no risks. The industry is restructuring and some sectors deserve attention: Communication, Energy and Environment, Automotive and Healthcare. We have had sessions and lectures on these topics. And about how can consultants adjust their practice to help manage these sectors David was definitely the right man.

And David Maister was the 2009 recipient of the Sloane Award for Excellence in Management Consulting that he received from the hands of Richard Metzler. Could you remind us of all the people who have been awarded the Sloane Prize in the past ?

John Furth : Roland Berger, was the first recipient (in 1999), a very smart, very ambitious man, and Roland Berger Strategy Consultants is the largest European strategy consultancy. He was to come this year but he was very busy and did not make it out. About the list I would say: Mike Hammer, Edward de Bono, inventor of the 6 hats method in 2005, Ginni Rometti, Vice President of IBM in 2006, C. K. Prahalad from the University of Michigan in 2007,  Henry Mintzberg from the University of Sherbrooke Canada in 2008, and finally David Maister, former professor of the Harvard Business School and the "consultant's consultant".

How would you summarize the 2009 AMCF meeting? In terms of the state of the economy, state of the consulting industry, quality of the meeting and choice of the topics ?

John Furth : Let me start with the topics. We choose these industries because they are in trouble at the moment and because it is where the consultants can help much. So it is where consulting makes a lot of significant change and where government can provide support for that change, especially in Energy and Healthcare. Automotive is in trouble at the moment all over the world but Healthcare is almost US and linked to the Obama policies. Other topics have been chosen because of the economic recession. Internet and Communication as well as Energy are strong fields but hit by the recession. We might have added Retail, Real Estate which are big industries in the US. Now, about the state of the economy and consulting I would say that for the consulting industry it needs to reinvigorate itself. We need to come up with interesting new ideas and new methodologies. About the state of the economy, I would say it will be difficult. The year 2010  [and probably 2011] will be difficult as it will be in Europe.  We are at the beginning of a recovery but it is very difficult and somehow different from what it is in Europe. About the meeting itself I am happy to say the 2009 edition was an excellent meeting, very positive in term of energy, with people very enthusiastic.  And it helped much to get a true vision of the state of consulting; And I would summarize it this way:   The next big idea is not yet here ! And as observed by the people at Kennedy information, consulting is a mature industry and like all mature industries it certainly has to reinvent itself. And this is the big topic we will have to work on at the next meetings and forums.

… which conclusion brings me elegantly to our following question. For the next Leadership Forum (new name of the annual meeting) which is to be held on Dec 2-3 2010 at the University Club of New York, Peter Shiff of Europacific Capital, Jeremy Siegel from the Wahrton School and James Champy, the internationally acclaimed consultant, will be the "guest stars" of the meeting, with James Champy being the year recipient of the Sloane Award. As we all know James Champy as the inventor with Michael Hammer of the Reengineering, do we have to see in this "casting" a link to the temporary lack of "big ideas" we talked about ?

John Furth : That is always a topic for us. You didn't mention Prof. Bob Eccles from Harvard Business School. He will talk to us later in the session about he thinks is the next big idea for consulting.

Just a few weeks before the New York forum will be held in Paris the European Leadership Forum at the Deloitte headquarters in Neuilly. Again you propose a nice list of panelists with Brad Smith from Kennedy Information and Rick Carter of Equation Consulting,  Gerard Debrinay from Algoé and Christian Chattay of Deloitte. Could you unveil to our readers the topics that might be dealt with by these talented experts ?

John Furth : We are going to be talking a lot about what our clients expect and need from their consultants. We will also talk a lot about the state of the industry, especially in North America and Asia. Europeans always like to know what's going on outside of their territory.

John, this year we saw Ineum merging with Kurt Salmon, Watson Wyatt merging with Tower Perrin and finally Hewitt merging with Aon Consulting . As a final question we would like to know your feeling about these merging and mega fusions? Is this the beginning of a new consolidation wave or is this the sign of the crisis end ?

John Furth : M&A [Merging & Acquisition] is always a major way to gain market share or cut costs in a mature industry like ours. I expect we will be seeing a lot of this kind of activity in the next few years.

Mister President, on the behalf of our readers, I thank you very much for this overview and for these invaluable comments. Thanks John.

Words collected by Bertrand Villeret
Chief Editor, ConsultingNewsLine

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