Keeping your service portfolio profitable: how ‘scraping the barnacles’ can make your boat go faster

By Jason Parks, Director, Equiteq and Pat Webb, Director, Equiteq

Clients give knowledge-intensive services firms such as consulting, IT services and media agencies difficult and constantly evolving problems to solve. Markets change, competitors emerge and macroeconomics shift, all of which have an impact on what’s hot and what’s not when it comes to M&A.

That means buyers are attracted to firms with a clear value proposition that transcends service offerings and the capability to respond and deliver a relevant service portfolio in a changing environment. Simply put, a firm is worth more when it is bought for its strategic capability rather than just offering the buyer additional service capacity.

Achieving a relevant and effective service portfolio means more than investing in new service lines, because it’s also important for consulting firms to phase out what is no longer working for the future value of the business.

David Ogilvy explained in his “principles of management” (which took his firm from a start-up to generating billions) that dropping services that have become unprofitable must be driven by management:

“To keep your ship moving through the water at maximum efficiency, you have to keep scraping the barnacles off its bottom. It is rare for a department head to recommend the abolition of a job, or even the elimination of a man; the pressure from below is always adding. If the initiative for barnacle-scraping does not come from management, barnacles will never be scraped.”

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Principles of Maximizing Profitability

There may not be a more fundamentally important topic for consulting firms than improving profits.

Shareholders ultimately want a return on their investment and buyers are looking for evidence of healthy growth, while strong profitability is required to sustain growth and equity realization.

The levers that need to be pulled to improve margin – revenue and cost – might be well understood, but the combination of activities required are often more nuanced.

We’ve identified the top strategies firms can use to start improving profits now:

  1. The leadership team must make profitability an ongoing focus

Profitability has to become embedded in the leadership team’s mindset for sustainable margin improvement to be successful.

Achieving this requires strong communication around accountabilities, clear success measures being established and tactical activities – such as margin exception reporting, resource management, and utilization forecasting – becoming integrated into regular business updates.

Once a shared understanding of what success looks like is established within this team, firms can create strategic work streams – such as market expansion or IP development – and make people accountable.

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