From Pepsi to Bain: My life as a management consulting star and partner
Terence (not his real name) was a consulting partner at 2 leading international management consulting firms. He has worked on engagements in the USA, UK, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, France, Mexico, South Africa, Dubai and Canada. He rose rapidly through the ranks and made partner in a very short time frame. He has graciously agreed to write a limited series of posts about his journey from Pepsi into management consulting and his life as a consultant. This is his story and first post.
In his first post, he discussed his move from Pepsi to Bain & Company. His second post discussed his early years at Bain & Company. His third post discussed his first client-facing engagement as an analyst at an airline client. His fourth post examined his role in developing the business case on an IT strategy project for an airline company. His fifth post examined turning around a struggling Eastern European airline in preparation for an IPO. His sixth post reviewed a project to create a new low-cost airline. His seventh post looked at Bain benchmarking techniques. His subsequent posts, approximately 15 additional chapters have been converted into a 287 book which completes the arc of his career started in these articles.
Money, or should I say, lack of money was one major reason to join management consulting. It was not the only reason. At 21 years of age, I was an assistant brand manager for Pepsi. The pay was not great as I had only been in the position for 1 year and I had no advanced degree. The work at Pepsi was interesting but not dynamic.
I joined Pepsi for three reasons. First, I wanted a premium Fortune 500 name on my résumé. Second, I wanted exposure to Pepsi’s famed management training programme. I had heard about their model of throwing young hires into the deep-end and seeing how they responded. Third, I was hoping to get an opportunity to travel to some exotic outpost or maybe relocate as an expatriate. The culture was great and the people were friendly. The company also treated me a little differently from all the other management trainees. I had a degree in physics from a top school on the west coast. Pepsi did not seem to attract many candidates with my profile.
I quickly distinguished myself with my analytical abilities. I believe the term “excel-jockey” was used a few times to describe my ability to manipulate numbers and extract data. At the time Pepsi had hired Nielsen AC to measure its stock availability in store. Each week and month, Nielsen AC sent through these complex sheets describing the out-of-stocks (OOS) in each major shopping centre and region. OOS mean a lot to Pepsi. For one, too high OOS means there is no product on the shelf. This means lower revenue. On the other hand, too low OOS could mean lower inventory turnover and larger commissions to the sales team who were partly rewarded on the OOS figures. Getting the correct number was critical.
I remember poring through the OOS numbers and thinking to myself, “this cannot be right. The numbers do not balance.” I took my concerns one level up. Nothing, the brand manager did not really seem interested in fixing the Nielsen numbers. In his view Nielsen could never be wrong. I took it one more level up and was told to fix it if I thought something was wrong. So I collected all the Nielsen excel sheets for the last 6 months and recalculated them all with my new formula. I then took my sheets to Nielsen to explain my new approach. Despite some obvious resentment that a skinny 21 year-old kid was showing up the famed statistical minds at Nielsen, they did agree my numbers were correct.Recalculating the sales commissions showed that Pepsi was paying close to $80M in excess commissions. There were some strong words between Pepsi and Nielsen, and I think Nielsen lost a fair amount of business.
That pretty much made my career at Pepsi. I was now the golden child. My gymnastics with numbers did not stop there. I also worked out a better system to track the performance of Pepsi’s external sales support staff. This technique led to OOS dropping to less than 5% in the pilot account. My future looked good.Less than 9 months after joining I was asked to move to Pepsi’s head office and help lead an initiative to bring some of my “analytical spark” to a new and important unit that was trying to help with in-store promotions.
As I was settling into my new position, I was also looking for a new apartment. I realised that over 50% of my take-home salary would go to my new apartment. That was not even for a nice place. I was living in a dingy little basement apartment – albeit in a rather premium neighbourhood.That same month I also received my increase. It was just 7%. I figured out fairly quickly that everyone else in my group of management recruits were receiving the same salary and had obtained the same increase.
A brand manager I had befriended realised I was unhappy and offered to take me to lunch to explain how salaries are set and why it is not the only measure of success and progress. Despite all the nice and important things he said in that lunch, all I remember was an aside comment he made about his wife working at the management consulting firm, BCG, and the huge salary she was making.The next day I decided to come into the office later than planned and spent a good few hours on the internet finding out about the world of management consulting.
At the time, just like now, there was not much information about the interview and recruitment process. There is always lots of information written by juniors and associates, but nothing written by the partners themselves who make the major decisions. What’s the point of listening to juniors? So I called up a few head-hunting firms whom I read had success placing candidates at McKinsey and Bain. After a few calls and messages, I found a firm who had indeed been successful and currently had a mandate to find new associates for McKinsey. Bingo. I sent me resume across.
At this time, my resume did not have much on it. It was pretty bland. I studied at a UK boarding school and I was the Head Prefect. I had won several awards at High School. I was a debate champion. I was president of my university physics team and president of the science society. I was also a member of a few organisations for smart people. I had played baseball at university and was also involved in track and field at high school. What I did have on my side was that I was very confident, a very polished speaker and dressed like a professional. I looked the part.
The head hunter was nice enough but very direct. He made it clear that the best shot I had would be to join a consulting firm at the entry-level. I needed to shoot for the business analyst position. I was a little disappointed until I heard the salary range. It was easily twice what I was earning. He also thought my resume was poorly formatted and I need to particularly show three things:
- Exceptional academic results.
- A broad range of interests.
- Demonstrated success in my interests.
- Someone who showed they could succeed as a professional.
He wanted a one page resume and told me to go for the Ivy League style. He sent me a sample from a Harvard graduate.By this time, my heart was just not into Pepsi. Despite my successes and obvious value to the business, I still could not get over my paltry increase which seemed to be the standard for all employees. The company car was obviously a bonus, but that novelty soon wore off as well.
Paying 50% of my salary towards my apartment was also heavily impacting my life. The remainder 50% needed to be split between food, paying off my study loans and the meagre remainder went towards my nascent social life. Dating is expensive.Most days at the office were spent reading the paper and just waiting to go home. It was a real drag. The people were great and my new assignment was going well, but all things considered I had to go soon. I was not enjoying my time.The head-hunter had managed to secure me interviews at 3 major firms and one investment bank. They were all fantastic companies:
- Bain & Company
- Monitor Company
- McKinsey & Company
- Morgan Stanley
The Monitor interview was a disaster. For one, despite all the advice about being prepared for case questions and brain teasers, I was not fully prepared. I also felt that the Monitor partners running the interview were just not happy to be there. They were slightly condescending, made banal remarks and seemed quite proud of their firm. They were more interested in explaining how superior Monitor was to Mckinsey then interviewing me. The case was a disaster. The rest of the interview was a disaster. I needed no further response from the firm to know I was not going to be called back for another round. The head-hunter called me. His feedback was that the partners felt I was good but “not wired to think like a management consultant.”
The Morgan Stanley interview was something else all together. Despite being all 22 years of age and holding an undergraduate degree, albeit with almost a full 100% average and from a great school, I was going to be interviewed by the Senior Managing Director running M&A and his two deputies. It did not get any better than this. The interview was on a really hot and muggy summer’s day. I drove out to Morgan Stanley’s head office. I was ushered into a massive boardroom and took a seat on the far end.
Shortly thereafter, the three gentlemen arrived. I was not intimidated in the least. They did not seem focused on testing my analytical skills.My resume seems to have provided sufficient comfort. It was a great discussion as they discussed their thoughts for the business, what they were looking for and why they needed someone super-smart and with burning ambition to serve as their own “brain” to support them in meetings, discussions and planning sessions. They seemed keen and pushed for me to see the HR director the next day.
The Morgan Stanley offer disappeared when the HT director vetoed the offer. In her words “he is not a person who will succeed or be happy in the background.” Damn.
Bain & Company’s office oozed opulence. It was intimidating and you could sense the mental energy in the place. People were polite, well dressed and seemed to have bought their clothing from the same place. I remember sitting in the interview and trying to count the stitches on the sleeve of my interviewers white, French cuffed cotton shirt. My written exam went well and I was finished in about 30 minutes so I had a good 40 more minutes left over. My first case also went well since I spent more time preparing. My second more detailed case was also a success. It’s easy to read the outcome of the case by judging the interviewers demeanour and response to your answers. These guys were enjoying the interview.
On the drive back from the interview I received a call from the head-hunter saying that Bain was happy and wanted to move me to the next round of interviews. The next round was two 30 minute cases with separate partners. One was a medical market diagnostic case and the second was an insurance company growth case. I actually enjoyed the cases. The partners were engaging and we had a good conversation going.
From my Monitor case experience, I had decided to sketch out my case response on the white board since I then had more space with which to work, it was easier for the partners to see my response and I could make edits easily. I used the following techniques in both cases:
- Step One – What is the Question I am Answering
- Step Two – What data do I have?
- Step Three – What constraints do I have?
- Step Four – What is my decision tree or hypotheses (this is the framework I would use)
- Step Five – Talk the partner through my thinking
This approach was very, very well received. I think the partners liked my open approach; they appreciated the fact that I communicated all my thinking with them. It is important to realise that cases do not always have the same answer. Therefore, in the event that you provide a different answer, the interviewers should understand how you arrived at your answer.
The thinking process to arrive at the answer is much more important than the real answer. Hence the need to ensure the interview understands how the answer was developed. The worst thing you can do is simply pop out an answer and are then unable to talk the interviewer through your approach.
I was called back for more interviews the next day and an offer was finally made on the fourth day. I was very surprised at the speed of things. Yet, based on the more than 200% increase in salary, how could I say no? I accepted. At the time, I did not realise that McKinsey was seen as the premium management consulting firm. If I had known, I may not have taken the Bain offer and waited for the McKinsey offer. However, the Bain experience was a truly polished affair. The place was humming with cerebral energy. Everything was professional and classy. They were thorough and prompt. No delays between interviews or after interviews. They seemed to know what they wanted. People remembered my name and while they were tough and very smart, I felt welcomed.
Today, I know better – the firms are on a par.This was a second reason for joining a management consulting firm. Everyone talks about them like only the best and brightest can get it. It’s almost as if you are stupid if you have not worked there. This elitist feeling does tug at ones ego. It was a badge that I was indeed smart.
Leaving Pepsi was not easy either. Despite my disinterest and laziness towards the job at hand, things were going very well and the powers that be were eyeing me for bigger things. Both of my senior managers were away on an African Safari. I therefore decided to fax my resignation letter. Bad idea. I think they were personally affronted that I would not try to call them. That said, they asked me to hold on and came back early to talk me out of my resignation. I was flown to Miami, where they were in transit, and taken down to a fantastic dinner on the marina. This was not too bad for my first trip to Miami.
They mentioned how much I had done for Pepsi and how impressed the company was with my performance. It was a long discussion about what my future could be. They showed me a huge home belonging to a Pepsi executive and said that in 15 to 20 years I could have something like that. Given their efforts to keep me, I felt pretty bad about my fax. I told them I would think about it but had already decided to go anyway. I think too much damage was done with the fax and my thoughts about leaving.
The first thing I did when I handed in my company sponsored car was to walk across the street to a BMW dealership and drive out with a convertible. I thought I had arrived.