Big Five plan strategic changes

Long-standing questions about the future of the Big Five and the multi-million pound consultancies they have created were answered last month by developments that climaxed with Accenture's announcement that it is planning to float.

Accenture, formerly Andersen Consulting, filed a registration statement with the US Securities and Exchange Commission after voting 'overwhelmingly' to proceed with an initial public offering.

After months of speculation, Accenture managing partner and CEO Joe Forehand said: 'Our partners' decision reflects our organ-isation's commitment to enhance our long-term growth, strengthen our ability to deliver the highest value solutions to our clients and continue to provide competitive rewards to motivate and attract the best people.'

The firm said the sale will begin 'as soon as practicable after [the] registration statement becomes effective', but it is unclear what percentage will go to market. However, since Accenture is currently the world's largest consulting practice with approximately $10.8bn of revenues for the 12 months ended February 28, the deal is likely to net its 2,500 partners large amounts of money - around $4m each is the most popular estimate.

Joe Berardino, Andersen's chief executive officer, said he wasn't mourning the loss of Accenture, and added that the divorce was 'old news' and that he wanted his firm to move on. He plans to follow a contrary strategy to the rest of the Big Five, warning that it may involve re-opening a dialogue with the SEC: 'We're very focused on our core competencies and we don't plan on spinning off, selling or merging - we like being Andersen.'

He explained that the firm's next objective is to fully integrate its service lines so clients can expect the same degree of uniformity wherever they do business.

Predicting that the technology sector slump won't last, Berardino said the firm is going to find it increasingly difficult to serve its clients' technology needs unless it can enter into alliances with sub-contractors. At the moment, this is difficult to achieve because of SEC independence rules on affiliates.

Similarly, Deloitte & Touche has vigorously denied rumours that it is about to sell its consulting arm to an unnamed bidder: 'Deloitte & Touche and Deloitte Consulting will continue to remain as one firm,' it said. 'Staying together enables us to provide multidisciplinary solutions to clients' complex needs.' However, a source close to the firm claimed that Deloittes was well on the way to selling off Deloitte Consulting.

KPMG Consulting, on the other hand, has sent out discouraging signals to other independent, or soon to be spun off, consultancies. Just two months after its successful initial public offering in February, KPMG Consulting will shed 550 North American employees in the face of the US slowdown. Consulting staff will also be shed by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

However, PwC said that diving tech stocks and the economic slowdown won't stop it from going ahead with spinning off its consulting arm. The firm said it is also moving ahead with divestment of its corporate finance, human resources, and possibly its tax practices.

Scott Hartz, global managing partner for PwC management consulting services, said the firm has not ruled out another deal with Hewlett-Packard, but is now looking at three options: a sale to another buyer; an IPO; or a mixture of the two where outside investors would take part-ownership of the practice while the partners keep a minority share.

'We are preparing ourselves so that we can do an IPO, but we're not committed to that route,' said Hartz.

Having divested its IT consultancy last year, Ernst &Young said it plans to move forward by developing new service lines in response to marketplace demands. Richard Bobrow, E&Y's chief executive for the Americas, explained that the Big Five's decision to build IT and management consultancies in the 90s was a response to client demands, and said that his firm will develop whatever expertise it needs to service its clients in the future.

'As you sell your IT consultancies it forces you to look at your other services in a new way,' he said. 'There are huge growth opportunities available through our existing core competencies. Take corporate finance for example. The US investment banks have been big owners of this market space. But they're focused on the top end of the market. They don't have the distribution capacity to focus on the rest of the market. There are huge opportunities for all of the Big Five in all aspects of corporate finance.'

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