Thursday, October 24, 2013

US Antitrust Laws Created McKinsey And Other Consulting Firms As An Unintended Consequence

From Longreads, "The Making of McKinsey: A Brief History of Management Consulting in America" by Duff McDonald, The Firm, Simon & Schuster:
Unwittingly, the federal government did its part to create the modern consulting business. Starting in the last part of the nineteenth century, Washington made periodic regulatory efforts to curb the power of big business, including the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act and Clayton Act of 1914, and the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The intended effect of these measures was to prevent corporations from colluding with one another to fix prices and otherwise manipulate the markets. The unintended effect, according to historian Christopher McKenna, was to accelerate the creation of an informal—but legal—way of sharing information among oligopolists. Who could do that? Consultants.

Regulatory efforts paid another rich benefit to the likes of McKinsey: Restricted from cutting backroom deals with each other, firms were thus obliged to actually compete, which meant they needed to make their operations more efficient. Here again, consultants were the answer.

But perhaps the circumstance that most aided the creation of the consulting industry was the entry of a new, key player into business itself. Empire builders with names like Carnegie, Duke, Ford, and Rockefeller had built huge, vertically integrated companies, but they had neither the time, the talent, nor the inclination to create and carry out management systems for those entities. These were the conquerors of capitalism, not its administrators. And yet, as Chandler pointed out, “their strategies of expansion, consolidation, and integration demanded structural changes and innovations at all levels of administration.”

Into the breach stepped a new economic actor who was neither capital nor labor: the professional manager. Gradually, he replaced the robber baron as the steward of American business. Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary president of General Motors, was the first nonowner to become truly famous for his managing skills. His decentralized, multidivisional management structure gave GM the agility to outmaneuver the more plodding Ford Motor Company and snatch the industry lead. Ford may have revolutionized manufacturing, but Sloan realized that the car-buying market had become big enough to be segmented into people who bought Buicks, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs. By the late 1920s, the car market was maturing, and people wanted choice. Sloan also gave them the ability to buy a car on credit—a groundbreaking idea at the time. Before the decade was over, GM had surpassed Ford as the market share leader, a position it didn’t relinquish until the 1980s.

Sloan and his ilk were perfect customers for McKinsey: Lacking the legitimization of actual ownership, professional managers felt great pressure to show they were using cutting-edge practices. And who better to bring those practices to their attention than consultants who were talking to everyone else? This was the beginning of a decades-long separation of ownership from control in corporate America, and the consultant was an able ally to the professional manager in this tug-of-war—an ally who wasn’t gunning for the manager’s job. Thus began the era of managerial capitalism.

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