Bumper year for acquisitions of management consultancies

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Management consulting deals had an excellent year in 2015, driven mainly by the significantly high growth in deal volumes across Europe and North America. Our latest annual Global Consulting M&A report showed that between 2014 and 2015 deal volumes increased by 19%, which is the largest year on year increase the sector has experienced since 2010. The fact that management consulting experienced the largest increase of all sectors indicates increasing demand from buyers.

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Case study: Charting future development for NMG Consulting

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Background

NMG Group is an international consultancy and advisory organization focusing on the financial sector. Originally formed in Singapore in 1992, the company now operates in other parts of Asia, Australia, Europe, Africa and North America. NMG Consulting, a part of the NMG Group, hired Equiteq for support in its strategic review and acquisition strategy.

Through the Equity Growth Accelerator (EGA) methodology, NMG developed an objective assessment of its strengths and weaknesses both at group and divisional level, identifying key areas for improvement and potential synergies, leading to a full-scale action plan. The plan included a focused external growth strategy.

Strengthened by this exercise, the company aimed to double in size within the following three years.

The client’s situation

NMG Consulting was looking to boost its equity value to improve its short-term performance, finance its external growth strategy (partly through share considerations) and help direct managerial attention toward long-term synergistic group building.

Our approach

Equiteq ran an initial EGA workshop with the NMG Group Executive Director and the CEO of NMG Consulting to benchmark the business against the wider industry and map where it wanted to be within three years.

We then introduced four lighter less rigorous workshops with the leadership teams of four divisions (Strategy, Actuarial, Insights & Analytics).

The results of the workshops were consolidated into an Outcomes Report, which focused primarily on issues that were common amongst the divisions, or that related to Group synergies.

We presented and discussed the report with the Group CEO and the Consulting Group CEO before the annual global management meeting of NMG Consulting. Consequently, we then ran a two-day session – including group work – with three teams elaborating and presenting suggestions on 10 strategic issues identified as critical during the discussion.

In the final step, the participants voted on the priority levels to be given to each issue, and suggested actions to be taken.

How did this deliver value to the client?

Equiteq’s EGA methodology helped NMG Consulting identify and approach its top priority areas:

  • Developing relevant IP within each entity of NMG Consulting
  • Defining an effective external growth strategy (target selection, market positioning, geographies, size, integration, etc.)
  • Becoming an employer of choice – improving recruitment and career management

Based on the outcome of the workshops, the company designed and embarked on the implementation of an action plan that both enhances the performance of the business and streamlines the path towards selected acquisitions. This joint exercise conducted over three months paved the way to the achievement of NMG’s three-year objectives by creating a clear roadmap, identifying and prioritizing the key actions to be taken, and mobilizing the whole management team.

To read some of our other case studies, please click here.

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Sale to a trade buyer

Trade buyers (also known as strategic buyers) are companies that buy other operating companies as part of their growth program and to fulfil other corporate objectives. As the most active category of buyers in the market, it is critical to understand how trade buyers think and behave as you build your business for eventual sale.

The primary driver for them is the overwhelming need for growth. All professional services firms require growth, and stated another way, protection against shrinkage and loss of relevance. This is true not only for large publicly traded firms that have to explain their financial results every quarter to investors, but also for smaller firms that compete with them for specific business. If you are building your own firm, you know how difficult it is to grow through hiring, service line expansion and finding new clients (organic growth). As firms become larger, the need to supplement organic growth by acquiring revenue becomes more and more acute.

There are two primary reasons why trade buyers make acquisitions:

  1. To build scale in the current business footprint (service line, geography) through the acquisition of similar firms which are rapidly integrated
  2. To expand the current model by acquiring adjacent firms, new service lines or new geographic coverage

Sale to trade buyer table

The most active trade buyers are the household names that you might expect. However, do not make the mistake of casting the net too narrowly when thinking about who might be a buyer of your business. As the business world seeks solutions and bundled services from their suppliers, we are seeing more and more companies who do not traditionally offer consulting services look to acquire businesses that can help them provide more of a solution-based offering to their clients.

Take the example of a multi-national equipment manufacturer client of ours. They are looking to buy consulting businesses in several of their product lines, such as in workplace safety consulting, so they can bundle that service as part of a broader solution to larger clients.

As you consider your options for selling your firm, it is critical to understand your position relative to larger competitors in your space and adjacent firms that might see your services and clients as additive to their current offerings. Even if a potential sale is years away, it is never too early to understand who might be interested in your firm and what you might do – and not do – to use that knowledge to your advantage.

NB: The term ‘trade buyer’ refers to those who acquire for strategic purposes and includes in it our definition of consulting and corporate buyers.

To listen to the recording of our webinar that we hosted on exit options when selling, please click here.

Are you a member of Equiteq Edge? It’s full of content to help consulting firm owners prepare for sale and sell their business. Register here to gain full access.

7 drivers to get your firm into the premium value zone

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To the uninformed it seems implausible that a consulting firm could have hardly any value at all. After all, these are knowledge based ‘people businesses’. How does a buyer place a value on an asset that could evaporate if everyone leaves the day after a deal is signed?

Whatever your business model, whether it’s pure consulting or otherwise, the likelihood is that there is insufficient tangible value to be found in your P&L or balance sheet. It’s the inclusion of the intangible assets that provide this value and they can’t be found in any financial statement.

The only way a buyer is going to pay a premium price for your business, is if these intangibles are converted into confidence and belief that the next 3 years provide almost guaranteed growth.

Firms that inspire this confidence can cite 7 clear drivers of sustainable growth, underpinned with facts and data.


1. We know exactly who our strategic clients are

Do you know the ideal profile of the companies in your target market(s) where you have the greatest right to win against the competition?

If so, your buyer can then get excited about your focus, how he can take you and your IP into his clients that look the same, leverage your capabilities and increase fee income per client.

2. Here’s the rate of penetration to date and space we can fill

Have you built and maintained a database of current and potential strategic clients covering the entire addressable market?

Your knowledge of target market size and current penetration will demonstrate how you’ve scaled so far by design. A buyer can see year by year penetration rates, win rates and how that’s improved. He can also understand the white space left to fill into the future.

3. This is our database of decision makers and relationship growth

Have you researched and populated your database with a dataset of contacts comprising the decision makers and influencers in each target client?

A buyer will be able to take this data and understand how you have sold to and grown accounts. He will see that not only have you acquired great strategic clients, but you have both the data and relationships to continue the momentum.

4. Here’s how our UVP is growing our average engagement size

Are you selling a Unique Value Proposition that appeals to decision makers with big business problems and deep pockets?

If so, your buyer will be able to see how you’ve grown your UVP over time, resulting in very attractive engagement sizes he wants to replicate across the globe.

5. This is our growth and retention rate by strategic client

Are you very sticky to your clients, relationships last a long time and lifetime fee income per client is growing?

In an ideal world it would be a great asset to show 3 year contracted business to buyers, however in the real world the next best thing is to show client sell-on growth and long term retention rates. Buyers of consulting firms treat this as a proxy for contracted business and recurring revenues, suitably discounted, but still a big asset.

6. Look at our historic and future scale plan into adjacent spaces

Have you moved from cell to cell in your service/market matrix, by filling only the adjacent spaces symbiotically from your core?

When the buyer sees this picture, he can see not only the quality of your strategy, but also salivate over the blank canvas of white space to fill, once his brand and coverage is added to your capabilities.

7. Look at our historic forecast accuracy

Has your 12 month revenue forecast been honed over time into a reliable view of reality, with a margin of error to +\- 20%?

When you present your business to a buyer, no matter how well you’ve performed historically, he will treat your forecast with extreme caution. However when you show him the forecast data alongside all the imperatives above, his belief in the future will soar.

Key Takeaway

The only way a buyer will gamble on a high risk firm is if he mitigates his risk by paying a very low price up front and/or an earn-out highly contingent upon future results. However he will pay a premium for a firm that looks like a rock solid financial risk, irrespective of synergy value, which will drive the price up even further, increase the up-front payment and alleviate earn-out terms.

What Next?

These drivers are embedded within the Equity Growth Wheel, the model that enables firms to both evaluate current valuation and growth risk, plus an execution plan for performance improvement to sale readiness and exit. If you’d like to confidentially discuss your particular situation, please let us know and we’d be happy to help.

this blog is the condensed version of an in-depth article on this topic which you can access here. 

Are you a member of Equiteq Edge? It’s full of content to help consulting firm owners prepare for sale and sell their business. Register here to gain full access.

The world is now ‘on demand’, but why are so many back offices still living in the past?

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This week we have a guest blog from Mark Robinson, who has founded and sold several consultancies. His latest venture is professional services automation specialist, Kimble Applications, of which he is a co-founder.

Twenty or 30 years ago we organized our lives around how the world worked. We worked 9-5 because we had to be in the office to get work done, we sat down to watch a certain TV show at a certain time because that was the only chance we’d have to view it and we picked up a paper in the morning to get our news fix as that’s how we kept up with current events. That already seems like a long time ago now doesn’t it? These days we have flexible working, we can catch up on TV shows when and where it suits us and we can get a constant feed of news through our mobile phones. This has all been enabled through technology. But one area which has yet to embrace this new way of working is the back office.

Today, the back office is much the same as it’s been for decades. Invoicing is done at month end, as are payment runs and expenses, which are often physically uploaded, checked, approved and forwarded to finance. Resource planning is based on imperfect forecasting, often using a range of spreadsheets and a finger in the wind approach. Timesheets can take weeks to verify, leaving consultancy owners with little idea of how they are performing against budgets. This all adds up to challenges for any management team who wants to know how the business is doing at that exact point in time, as they have no idea how accurate or up to date the information they are using is. Imagine how much more quickly you could grow your consultancy if you had on demand information that showed you how the business was doing right then, allowing you to fix any problems much earlier and make decisions faster that improve your company performance.

That the back office is so behind is even more surprising given that we now accept that front offices need to function ‘on demand’. We know consultancies have to be responsive to clients’ requests and needs, so why are we leaving the back office wallowing in the past when they should be joined up with the front office and just as responsive?

The fact is that we now have the technology to make the back office on demand, which can bring huge benefits to consultancies. Rather than running a variety of untrustworthy spreadsheets or old fashioned packages, the correctly designed cloud application means that we can have a single, unifying system based around the processes the cloud enables into which we enter information as it happens and access from anywhere. This destroys the silos that previously existed between departments. From senior management, sales people, project managers, consultants and associates, every time anyone changed anything, the overall performance reporting would be updated across the system in real-time, so that whenever you looked at the information on the system, you know it’s completely accurate and a snapshot of where the business is at that time.

A client (or you, for that matter) wants to know what the status of a project is, how much time and money has been spent on it? They don’t have to wait until the next reporting run: you can tell them instantly. You’d be able to enter and approve expenses and timesheets from anywhere, at any time, and from any device. You’d know what capacity and skillsets you have on the bench at any given moment, and for how long, allowing better resource planning and pursuit of new business.

And alongside all of this, everyone in the business would have the same level or clarity meaning every employee understands how their actions can impact the business, empowering them to make a real difference to the growth of the consultancy.

And professional services automation (PSA) tools make a huge difference to the bottom line too. Invoices can be produced more quickly and are error-free, meaning they get paid more quickly, improving the company’s cashflow. Because much of the work is now automated, this frees up the back office to concentrate on more added-value work, meaning companies can grow without having to increase the headcount of non-revenue generating staff. Service Performance Insight is a global research, consulting and training organization dedicated to helping professional service organizations make quantum improvements in productivity and profit. Its last benchmark found that firms using PSA software saw more than a 6% increase in their billable resource utilization. On average, firms using PSA earned an extra $11,000 of revenue per consultant than those that have yet to adopt it and enjoy nearly 75% stronger profit margins as measured by EBITDA.

This technology is with us now. It’s time for consultancies to move their back offices from the past and into the on demand present. Just because it’s the way we’ve always done it, it doesn’t mean it’s the way we should continue to work.

Are you a member of Equiteq Edge? It’s full of content to help consulting firm owners grow and realize equity value in their business. Register here to gain full access. 

Equiteq’s Global M&A report 2015 – Who’s buying?

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For those aiming to one day sell their consultancy, who is buying is naturally of great interest. This week we’ll be delving into our Global Consulting M&A Report to see where the buyers are coming from.

In 2014, 2,274 targets were bought by 1,722 different buyers, meaning buyers in 2014 acquired, on average, 1.32 targets each. This is broadly consistent with a similar ratio of 1.29 in 2013, illustrating that the overall market is steady – neither consolidating, nor fragmenting – as the ratio of new buyers and new sellers entering the M&A market has remained consistent.

Looking at the most prolific buyers of consulting firms in 2014, the top of the list was dominated by the communications and marketing agencies. WPP, one of the world’s largest communications services group, acquired 52 companies in 2014, of which 23 were consulting businesses. They were also a leading buyer in 2013 with 22 acquisitions in the consulting sector during that year.

The second most prolific buyer was Publicis Groupe SA, who provides a range of advertising and communications services worldwide and was also the second most prolific buyer in 2013.

In third place, with 14 acquisitions in the consulting sector, is Japanese telecommunications company Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT Corporation). They are a keen acquirer of IT consulting and services businesses.

The ‘Big 4’ and Grant Thornton are typically the most prolific buyers. Deloitte have had consistently high levels of acquisition activity per year, although KPMG was the most acquisitive in 2014.

Private equity (PE) is increasingly attracted to the consulting sector for investments and 2014 was a record year for PE acquisitions.

Roughly 85% of buyers are categorized as ‘trade’ or ‘strategic’, where the buyers seeks some form of synergistic benefit from the acquisition. And approximately 15% are ‘financial’ or ‘investment’ focused, buying in the consulting sector for a straight return on their capital. PE groups can be attracted to consulting businesses because they consume very little of the high profits they generate on fixed or working capital. The free cash flow that is generated in many consulting firms can be used to pay back the interest and capital on the loans that are an integral part of PE investments.

If you are selling a firm in Europe, there is a 26% chance that your buyer will be foreign, whereas in the USA it is most likely (88%) that your buyer will be internal. The number of cross-border deals in 2014 is slightly higher than 2013, increasing by 3%. Seventy-five per cent of deals done worldwide were completed by only five countries: USA, UK, Australia, France and Canada.

If you’re interested in a more detailed analysis on any of these areas, more information can be found in our full report. To download a copy you need to be a member of Equiteq Edge – registration takes only moments here.

Why branding for professional services consultancies matters: Part two

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Last week Ralph Ardill, founder of The Brand Experience Consultancy, looked at why a strong brand is important for professional services firms. This week he’ll go into his 8P’s which provide a framework for consultancies looking to take their brand to the next level.

Having worked on dozens of brand-led, business transformation programs for professional services consultancies across a wide range of sectors, Ralph has developed the 8P’s of professional services branding as a framework for developing your brand. They are a good starting point for consultancies setting out on a brand development journey.

1. Purpose

What drives your firm and gets you out of bed in the morning? What is the singular reason you exist? What do you want to see more (or less) of in the world? How can you best distill and unleash the power of this purpose to attract the best clients and talent?

Try using classic storytelling techniques – who is the ‘hero’ in your story, who or what is the ‘villain’ and what will your hero need to be and deliver to win the day?

2. Principles

What are your guiding organizational principles that will underpin everything you do and guide you towards fulfilling your firm’s purpose? Often expressed as values, charters or client promises, these high level commitments clearly define your priorities and the way you do things. They also set a clear expectation of the quality of service and experience clients should expect.

Avoid pithy, vague and ‘aspirational’ vocabulary here but instead focus on compelling commitments that clearly define and bring to life both the client and employee experience of your firm.

3. Practices

What are the specific working practices, initiatives, rituals or programs you have established in your business to ensure your purpose and principles are hard-wired, as opposed to strategic slogans on your notice boards?

Define the signature moments, memories and experiences in the lives of your clients and employees that above all others will truly demonstrate your purpose and deliver your superior value proposition in action.

4. People

How will recruitment, retention, development and overall work/life experience of your employees and clients be driven by your brand? What are your ideal employee and client brand journeys?

Develop personas that represent your typical client (and employee) audiences and use these personas to constantly inform, challenge and inspire the design of your future brand experience.

5. Policies

How will the operating policies of your business be developed to best encourage, re-enforce and deeply embed your brand purpose in your business?

Use your purpose as the ultimate ‘stop doing’ list to make sure you avoid activities that do not deliver on your purpose and principles. Then look to establish new policies in your firm where you can re-invest these resources to encourage the new purpose-driven brand behaviours that will set you apart from the crowd.

6. Positioning

What are the key areas, sectors, disciplines, questions, issues and subjects where you have the greatest right to lead, play and win?

Ensure that your ‘positioning’ has real teeth and relevance by being clear on what you stand for, who you are for, what you can do, who you do it for and why they choose you.

7. Products

What will your future portfolio of brand products, services and experiences be? And how will these best be delivered, developed, communicated and commercialized?

Try to avoid the re-branding trap of simply re-packaging business as usual. A re-branding programme built around these 8P’s should inspire you to develop new branded products, services and experiences along with adding value to your existing service portfolio.

8. Personality

Last but not least, how can all the above best be expressed and brought to life as part of a powerful and distinctive brand personality, image and tone of voice that can be embodied across everything from your brand name, identity and online/offline communications, through to environments, proposals, pitches and presentations?

Try to ensure your re-branding programme remains firmly focused on designing superior arguments for why people should choose to work with and for your firm as opposed to the design of new ‘looks and logos’.

These eight questions cut to the heart of what will drive the development of tomorrow’s leading professional brands. By concentrating on each and clearly articulating what kind of consultancy you want to build and how this can be expressed through the different touch points that make up a brand, you will create an organizational personality and experience that will help you stand out to clients and potential employees.

Are you a member of Equiteq Edge? It’s full of content to help consulting firm owners grow and realize equity value in their business. Register here to gain full access.