First, Let's Kill All the Consultants

Inside the Unscrupulous World of Global Corporate Consulting

By Lewis Pinault
HarperBusiness 284pp $26

Lewis Pinault is an exceptionally bright and ambitious professional. Educated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he once won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the London School of Economics. Pinault's intelligence and charm also allowed him to spend a dozen years as a management consultant at the industry's most prominent companies, including Boston Consulting Group (BCG). With this book's publication, he can now add a new title to his resume: tattletale.

Consulting Demons is his confessional, a meandering journal of his harried and dissatisfied life as a consultant. The adventures he describes are not flattering either to him or to the business. Pinault comes off as a self-centered brat and an aimless drifter, unable to commit to anything more than an ephemeral personal or professional relationship. The consulting industry, meantime, is portrayed as little more than a sham where ''lying, cheating, and stealing'' are business as usual.

Pinault's book, however, often offers a rare and fascinating glimpse into the world of high-level consulting. The author worked at such esteemed consulting shops as BCG, Gemini Consulting, Arthur D. Little, and Coopers & Lybrand. He also toiled alongside such prominent consultants as James Abegglen, one of the foremost observers of Japanese management, and C.K. Prahalad, the University of Michigan strategist who coined the still popular phrase ''core competencies.'' Pinault was also involved in the work of many venerated clients, from AT&T to Philips Electronics, in the U.S., Europe, and Asia.

In every chapter, moreover, the author offers useful advice on numerous aspects of the consulting game, from tips on how to gain employment with a top firm to recommendations on how clients can use consultants more effectively. There's a concise rundown on the key players of the business and their roots. Another section describes the ploys used by some consultants to rack up higher fees.

But more to the author's point, no one who reads this book will ever trust a consultant again. Pinault tells how he misrepresented himself to gather proprietary information on disposable-diaper technology from Procter & Gamble Co. and Kimberly-Clark Corp. for a Japanese company. He tells how he became the fall guy after BCG created a pricing model for Royal Dutch/Shell Group that the client perceived as virtually useless. In the mid-1990s, he charges, Gemini was desperate to convince Chase Manhattan Corp. of both the attractiveness of the Southeast Asian markets and the depth of Gemini's experience there. ''That both were nonexistent were mere inconveniences for me to address,'' he writes.

He was also part of an early '90s Gemini team assigned to Philips Electronics. At the time, the Dutch company was fearful that Japanese competition would wipe out its own consumer-electronics business, just as the Japanese had cleaned up on RCA and Zenith in America. The consultant's fee for the first year of what was to be a five-year project: $20 million. Yet, says Pinault, even if Gemini had assigned all its most senior officers to the project at the highest possible billing rates, they could not have justified fees of half that amount. Never mind that Pinault felt that Philips could exhaust his knowledge of the industry within a week.

The author reports that, with Prahalad, he began to facilitate a corporate transformation that would make Philips more nimble, efficient, and innovative. Although he left after two years, he says the project did ultimately help Philips initiate multicountry production of TV sets, with picture tubes made in China, other components made in Japan and Singapore, assembly in Taiwan, and sales in Hong Kong.

But the negative evaluations outnumber the positive, and Consulting Demons is filled with condemnation of consultants and their work. He rambles on about the ''programmed deception'' of clients. He dubs business transformation ''mass brainwashing.'' Not surprisingly, he says, he began to ''question the hollow values and destructive schemes'' of the business. Pinault quit in 1997, shortly after becoming a partner at Coopers & Lybrand in Hong Kong.

Consulting Demons has a good many flaws. Most of the book is written as narrative in which the author recreates impossibly long conversations with colleagues whose names have been changed to protect their privacy. Often, he is more fixated on the elaborate meals and drinks consumed in fancy restaurants than on the intricacies of consulting or its solutions to business problems. Witness this tedious passage, one of many: ''Richard began to mince his meegoreng, a dish of spiced Chinese-Malay noodles and vegetables that was once standard fare for thousands of tin mine workers. I started in on my Szechuan chicken, made with dozens of enormous toasted red chilis.'' It goes on, but you get the idea.

All the same, set aside any negative feelings you may have toward the author, and you'll find Consulting Demons provocative and useful. For this writer, there was a further satisfaction: The book confirms my own explanation for the past decade's dramatic boom in high-powered consulting. The advice game has really become a temporary-employment affair. Today's consultants offer less in the way of counsel and far more in the way of short-term help. They give companies an efficient way to acquire expertise without adding to their fixed payrolls. They have become, in a sense, sophisticated Kelly Girls. It was a role the author obviously did not enjoy.

Senior Writer Byrne covers management.

To read a letter to the editor about this story, click here.

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First, Let's Kill All the Consultants

PHOTO: Cover, ``Consulting Demons''

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