Alumni Legends Interview: An intimate conversation with four of our former senior partners

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Participants

  • Christian Burger (tenure 1989–2015)
  • Rudi Euler (tenure 1974–1999)
  • Rolf Habbel (tenure 1986–2012)
  • Helmut Meier (tenure 1982–2009)

Peter Gassmann, Managing Director, Strategy& Europe

The following interview with our long-term senior partners Rudi Euler, Helmut Meier, Rolf Habbel, and Christian Burger gives you further insights and anecdotes from the time when the first European Booz & Company offices were formed and the business was grown.

The world of consulting in the pre-digital age was of course very different from today’s—companies had to be convinced of the added value of consulting, and the consulting industry was marked by charismatic leaders. Although many things have changed in today’s competitive consulting landscape, some aspects have remained. We continue to strive for excellence when solving our clients’ toughest problems, and we continue to seek to hire the best and the brightest talent. In addition, we hold similar cultural values today, and Strategy& benefits from the foundation that was then anchored in the DNA of our company.

To carry this heritage forward, I wish you lots of fun immersing yourself in the storm-and-stress years of the consulting industry, which come to life again in the conversation with Rudi, Helmut, Rolf, and Christian. And I am sure some stories will sound familiar from the time you were also part of this family. Enjoy!

In your view, what are the biggest changes that have occurred in the consulting sector in recent years?

Rudi: Forty years ago, consulting was a largely unknown profession in Germany. Existing consulting firms initially had to explain what it was all actually about. It began with bringing consultants with American know-how to Europe. Auditors had already been around since the turn of the century. Consultants had to prove that they could deliver in value added.

Helmut: It was about management concepts and the fact that consulting isn’t something a manager just invents but a science that you can also market as a product or service. That was a new phenomenon in the postwar period.

Rolf: We had huge acceptance issues at first. It was challenging to turn consulting into an accepted product on the market. We had to start by proving that we could contribute to a company’s development and success even though we weren’t already a long-standing element of the company. The advantages of external consultants simply weren’t generally known in the industrial sector. In the early ’80s and ’90s, it still took some artful persuasion just to be listened to.

Christian: But things changed starting in the early ’90s. We came in with a strong conviction of people who could do something the company itself couldn’t do. The fact that we hit the market with such incredible chutzpah was partially down to the environment, of course. With relatively little technical support and one computer for every 10 people, we could still get things done back then. By comparison, consulting is now an industrial service that, at its core, is often no longer that different from what the client itself does. Standing out as a consultant is getting more and more difficult as time goes by.

Rudi: As I was preparing for our conversation today, I looked through my first reports from 1967. Back then, it was about setting up a steel services center for a German steelworks. The Americans had a strong position in the steel market at the time, which is why we simply needed to essentially just transfer their management concepts to the German environment. At the time I met Jim Allen, founder of Booz Allen Hamilton [BAH], who coined the phrase: “We are the lighthouse: We show clients the way and our message is to make clients succeed.”

Rolf: During those early years, the fact was that the Americans were simply further along when it came to management experience. One of the largest telecommunications enterprises, which Helmut spearheaded for us at the time, was one of our major clients.

Helmut: But it wasn’t just about experience. Something that played a major role for us was bringing analytical approaches to management. We carried that over from our academic studies. Analytical and scientific work is now one of the fundamentals of consulting. Back then, it was a new idea. Of course, information technology has now transformed the whole thing.

“Forty years ago, consulting was a largely unknown profession in Germany.”

Rudi Euler

In your view, what does the future of the consulting sector look like? How are the requirements changing? What elements have not and will not be changed by digitization?

Rudi: It used to be about really having a message. You couldn’t go to the CEO with 90 pages of details and think you could sell that to him. If I did that, they’d ask me, “Where is the message? If you can’t say it in 10 words, don’t say it at all.” You have to convey the core message in 10 pages. With all the emails going back and forth these days, I get the impression that focus is being lost in it all.

Christian: Until well into the ’90s, we were simply forced to get to the point in a few pages. Adding charts and images to the reports, for example, was a lot of effort. That is why you always considered exactly how many pages you were handing to the client.

Rolf: Presenting the message, the analysis, and then the answers or solutions — that used to be the focal point of consulting. Clients won’t be satisfied with that anymore. Now, customers also need to be supported during their transformation. Building up trust is a prerequisite for that. Supporting, implementing, transforming — connecting all these points is what characterizes consulting nowadays. It’s not just about the message alone.

Helmut: Consulting used to be something of an elite activity, in a positive sense. By “elite,” I mean that you produce quality no matter the price and do not make compromises. Quality is the only justification for the high daily rates and good salaries in the sector. One corollary is that there is no room for compromise in selecting and hiring consultants either. The quality of the consulting is key. Experience alone will run into limitations at some point, because there is no new source available.

Christian: Earlier, there was also an absolute shared feeling of wanting to win. At the end of the process, you had to present a top-quality deliverable to the client. This spirit was an indispensable element of our work.

Rolf: “Work hard, play hard” for the client’s benefit — that was the main priority. There was no such thing as “work-life balance” at the time. If it came down to it, we worked through the night.

Christian: But we never partied as much as we did back then!

Helmut: Back then, there were also some oddball partners. (objections from all sides) Present company excepted, of course…

Rudi: There was no place as good as our company at turning people into oddballs.

Rolf: A good way to sum up the culture we had at the time was the saying: “If 10 people from a consulting company go to the cinema, then everyone will know about it afterward. If 10 Booz Allen people go to the cinema, no one will know.” We were all different, no one was too stiff; we were multicultural, diverse, and enjoyed our freedoms and individuality.

Rudi: Forget that I said “oddball.” Rolf put it much more nicely; that’s what I meant. Another thing that influenced BAH culture was that there was no “winner takes all” mentality. That made us very different from other consulting firms. We all got the same salary.

Helmut: Yes, it was completely transparent. Everyone knew where everyone else stood, including in financial terms.

“'Work hard, play hard' for the client’s benefit — that was the main priority.”

Rolf Habbel

Christian: There was a common understanding that money shouldn’t be the most important factor. In the ’50s and ’60s, rules were defined and a pragmatic code of conduct was developed. That had simple things like “you must always tell the truth” and “you have to look out for the common good.” All the things that are essentially obvious, but that always seem different in working life. That was a much stronger core than a sheer monetary incentive. This was an incredibly strong approach. It got more difficult later on. But the original system and the value proposition was an unbelievably effective tool in the competition with other consulting firms.

Rudi: That meant we had the same value system and goals. It was a key asset for partners to know how to behave properly. Anyone who didn’t stick to it made themselves conspicuous. It meant that the top dog didn’t automatically win.

Helmut: Complete egotists couldn’t survive with us.

Rolf: People who didn’t stick to the code — who used teams as cannon fodder, for example — got kicked out. That helped us a lot when it came to having a clear identity on the market and positioning ourselves accordingly to our values.  

“There was a common understanding that money shouldn’t be the most important factor. In the ’50s and ’60s, rules were defined and a pragmatic code of conduct was developed.”

Christian Burger

Five years of Strategy&: What would you like to see as the company’s future, and what opportunities can you spot on the horizon? It’s 105 years after Booz Allen Hamilton was founded — what would our founders be especially proud of?

Rolf: First of all, the three of them would certainly be proud of the company’s endurance and the fact that it is still fulfilling its aspirations toward quality. Its global presence and the fact that we are now part of a larger whole would definitely have pleased them too. Though they would probably have been disappointed that the name is gone. It’s still used in technology consulting for the US government, though. But the three of them had commercial consulting in the back of their minds when they founded the company.

Christian: BAH was able to adapt to constantly changing conditions such as industrialization, globalization, digitization, and so on. That was a huge achievement that very few companies managed to pull off.

Rudi: I didn’t know Edwin Booz and Carl Hamilton, but what I would say to Jim Allen today is: “We are still doing what you told me 45 years ago. Making clients succeed. That’s what our business is all about.” If we succeed in gaining a reputation among our partners all over the world as the company that manages to make clients succeed, then we’ve done a good job.

Helmut: All I can do is second what my colleagues say! A society without an economic foundation will fail. That is why I am sometimes skeptical where contemporary Germany is concerned. I am thankful for what my predecessors achieved in establishing a robust financial system. I hope that I can also contribute to that.

Rolf: The team and the people were the key to how we were able to withstand the stress back then. The people were exciting, interesting, young, dynamic. It’s an incredibly strong network to this day. You can still ring up any of the alumni at any time. This honesty, the momentum, the friendship — that’s unique. That’s really special at Booz Allen.

Christian: We value the excellence of the people now even more than back when we were active, because now we can really appreciate it, while back then we took it as a given.

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What do consultants have now that they didn’t have earlier? And do you nevertheless have any advice that you would like to share with your colleagues?

Helmut: My warning for the future is not to rely solely on the availability of quintillions of data points and technical savvy. Judgment is still the key skill for consulting. You always have to think for yourself. Someone who just copies down a number may not notice whether it’s a million or a trillion. IT and artificial intelligence shouldn’t replace personal judgment; otherwise, too many errors will creep in.

“IT and artificial intelligence shouldn’t replace personal judgment; otherwise, too many errors will creep in.”

Helmut Meier

When you look back at your careers, what were the most important things you learned? To what extent did your training at Booz & Company / Strategy& benefit you in other areas?

Rolf: Clarity in communication, adjusting to other people, being able to work under pressure, taking a target-oriented approach. Working in such a demanding environment gives you a lot of useful capabilities for your entire life. I definitely wouldn’t have learned so much about dealing with people and situations if I had worked in a more bureaucratic environment.

Rudi: I once thought about what the biggest mistake in my life and career had been, and at first I thought that I worked too much. But at the same time, I thought: It was incredibly fun. I learned so many new things. If I had stopped, it would have been the end of that. First you’re new on a project, and then after a couple of weeks you have a thorough understanding of what makes a sector tick. I wouldn’t want to have missed that.

Christian: If I look at what my children are learning now in international business courses, the kinds of essays they are writing, the kind of concepts they are introduced to, what they do with computers and so on — I have to say, without envy, that the level of what they learn there is totally different now. That’s not to deny that a clear thought and a pen and paper are very useful — something that is unfortunately underestimated nowadays. But in general terms a high level of professionalism and sophistication has been brought in. The source of competitive advantage back then was different to what it is now.  

Helmut: In the future, 95 percent of consulting tasks will be automated. Consulting will split apart at that point. Then there will be very few people who can be real discussion partners for the management. [They will need a] partner who is independent and has sound judgment. The rest will be subject matter experts.

Christian Burger, Rudi Euler, Rolf Habbel, Helmut Meier

Exquisite company memorabilia from Rudi‘s briefcase

Rudi Euler, Helmut Meier, Rolf Habbel, Christian Burger

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