PracticeConsultingProfile: Bob Empson – Mr President.

Profile: Bob Empson - Mr President.

"It's rather good, that," says Empson of the timing of his presidential year. His eyes sparkle, not only because he's recently back from a successful trip visiting a client in Australia, but with enthusiasm for his profession.

Much of his next year will be spent explaining the virtues of consultancy to the outside world, including the steps the IMC is taking to establish consulting as a universally acknowledged profession. Empson, now 40, had his eye on a consulting career even during his university days in Bristol, but realised some industry experience would be beneficial. This he gained at BP Oil International, developing expertise in marketing. He enjoyed his time at BP. “It’s a great company – I have still got a few of their shares,” he says. But the experience didn’t change his desire to become a consultant. He summarises his reasons in two words: variety and influence. Although dealing with motor lubricants for a few years was fine, Empson didn’t want to be confined to an oily specialisation for the rest of his career. “The prospect of some variety was attractive,” he says. “Secondly, in consultancy one has the opportunity to advise and help and influence organisations to achieve what they want to achieve, and help them identify what they want to achieve.” So Empson joined a small, specialist marketing consultancy, Halliday & Partners, for a couple of years, before moving to Baker Tilly, where he became involved in strategic consulting. He moved to Smith & Williamson in 1992. Although the consulting arm is a small part of the firm, generating fees of £1.5m out of a total of £55m, there is plenty of variety. Empson focuses on strategy, marketing and change management, working with central government, service-orientated global businesses, charities, law firms and property specialists. It was in 1993, shortly after his move to Smith & Williamson, that Empson became a full member of the IMC, and joined the Public Sector Special Interest Group, which he subsequently chaired. In 1997 he was elected to the council and he was made president elect last autumn. Empson’s prime motivation for joining the IMC was to help establish consultancy’s professional status beyond question. “I believe consultancy is a profession,” he says. “We do things differently; we think about things differently from other professions. I am not saying we are better, but different. And I am conscious of the fact that we have not had the status in the outside world as a profession.” He refers to recent press and TV coverage, with its innuendo that consultants are over-charging. “Every profession gets a knocking from time to time, be they accountants or barristers,” Empson says philosophically. “Our profession will be no different. But I think we have a job, and the Institute is working on that, to show that we are professional, particularly in terms of qualifications and standards.” Empson believes that the IMC has achieved considerable progress in this area. The Certified Management Consultant (CMC) qualification is now fully launched. “There has been great interest,” says Empson. “The number of people who have come to the workshops explaining the CMC, and paying to do so, suggests to us there is a demand there and individual members are going to want to do it. The standard (set by the previous qualification) was always good, but the mark two, and the effort we are putting behind promoting it, is proving to be attractive to people. Consultants want standards. They want a qualification. We are now giving them something they can value.” There is also a steady increase in the number of consultancy firms becoming Certified Practices, and Empson is pleased by the fact that these include both large and small firms, such as KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM Management Consultancy and Cornwell Associates. “This has given us confidence that we have a product which is going to help the profession, which will be of value to individual consultants and to the firms,” he says. If the IMC has made progress, Empson acknowledges there is more to be done. His goals for next year are not his alone, he stresses, but those of the IMC’s joint management board. “This is not ‘Bob’s agenda for 2000’,” he says. “My agenda has to be the same as everyone else’s agenda.” At the top of that agenda comes the CMC. Empson is keen to spread the word about its quality. “We have to make sure we are continuing to attract people to it and that means raising the profile of the standard and the understanding of the qualification, of the brand,” he says. “It’s not just to attract people to apply for the CMC. It’s saying to clients and to others, there are standards and you are working with professionals, so look out for it (the CMC tag).” The second aim for the year is to continue raising the profile of the IMC itself. “Not for its own sake, but as a vehicle for raising the credibility of the profession,” stresses Empson. “The profile of the institute in itself is irrelevant. What’s important is that the outside world can see the profession does have a body which is promoting excellence in management consultancy, which is our by line.” He also believes there is a job to be done to highlight how consulting benefits society. “We need to be showing that consultants do add value and they are relevant,” Empson says. “They don’t just add value to clients, but they also add value to society. It’s a £5bn industry, contributing to the balance of payments with exports.” Consultancy is also about helping people achieve what they want to achieve, he continues. “Some people might say that’s a bit prosaic and soft, but if it is only about money, I think it’s a bit shallow. I think we do contribute more to society and to organisations than just the bottom line.” Getting such messages across to the world at large is no easy task. As part of its campaign, the IMC is planning to hold more events with appeal for those other than consultants. “For example, we are thinking about hosting a lunch, which will raise money for charity, and we will get speakers there,” says Empson. “We are also encouraging clients and other organisations to become members, become involved and have a say.” The IMC’s aim to bring a couple of non-consultants onto Council as non-executive directors was close to bearing its first fruit at the time of writing. The chief executive of a government agency had agreed to take up one of these roles. “We are looking for one or two more, and we have some influential people in mind,” says Empson. “The idea seems to be attractive to them, and it shows we are being inclusive.” Persuading the press that consultants have something valuable to offer is a key challenge. “We want to work more with the press and the media,” Empson says. “We have a big job there. Understandably, the big nationals want a story, and a story that consultants are nice, friendly, constructive people is not going to sell newspapers. But we have to work with people in the national newspapers so they at least have an opportunity to see there is another side of the coin.” Empson believes that there is often a lack of understanding about the profession. He refers to a recent article in a leading Sunday paper, which suggested there were no qualifications or acknowledged standards for consultants. Empson seems somewhat incredulous at the idea. “We would say there are qualifications and standards,” he responds. But he doesn’t moan about the press. “We have a job to do and that’s probably because we haven’t got the message across,” he says. “I think we have to look to ourselves rather than just saying: ‘Don’t be horrible to us.’ We have to go out and tell people about the benefits.” He believes the IMC’s 4,000 members can help, by talking about the Institute with pride and confidence, even just by including their CMC status on pitches for work and explaining its meaning to clients. “4,000 voices saying something once a month adds up to an awful lot of positive words about our institute and our profession,” Empson says. One challenge that Empson identifies as facing the profession stems from a positive situation – the increasing sophistication of clients. “That actually makes it more fun and interesting because we have clients who know how to buy and use consultants,” he says. “It’s good for the profession because if there are consultants who are not so good and not so professional, they will be found out by the clients.” The IMC is also doing its bit to assist client-consultant relationships, and launched new guidelines on standard terms and conditions of engagement in March. These are based on the best of current practice. “It’s another way we can help our members,” says Empson. Looking ahead, Empson believes one challenge facing the profession could be how best to cope with recession. “Most sectors and most sizes of firm have been doing very well, both in terms of volume of work and profitability, which is good,” Empson says. “And I think we have a sounder profession, better able to withstand economic downturns than we did in the early ’90s, because more firms are making use of associates and subcontractors rather than having them in-house. However, if there were an economic downturn, consultancy is often the first thing that is cut. I don’t foresee a downturn in the next couple of years, but if and when one comes, that’s the challenge – how do we keep the good people we have and not, as we did in the early ’90s, make so many people redundant?” Empson entered consultancy with high expectations, and he hasn’t been disappointed. His desire for variety and the potential to influence has been met. Nor has he suffered too much from the dreaded consultants’ lifestyle issue. “I have managed, until last year, to avoid the situation where I have had to do a huge amount of travel,” he says. “I have always worked hard, but I have managed to keep the hard work and the fun of work in balance with my own personal life. That is a challenge for many consultants, particularly young ones who quite understandably are put to task quite hard.” Nevertheless, he believes the consulting profession allows people enough choice that they can find roles that meet their needs. “There are opportunities within the profession for people to find firms which suit them,” he says. “We have more flexibility in this perhaps than other professions. Firms have obviously got to be concerned about the quality of life of their staff, and should be taking practical steps to make sure people don’t become stressed and ill, but individuals also have choice.” Empson’s own recent flurry of trips abroad relates to an influx of overseas clients. “It’s led to quite a lot of travel in every continent recently, but I am enjoying that,” he says. “We’re working with management teams to identify their strategies, and to implement them. Our philosophy is not to do it to them, but to do it with them. In that way we ensure that the results are practical and realistic and feasible. We get our hands dirty, and that’s the fun of it.” Smith & Williamson has been “hugely supportive” of Empson’s involvement in the IMC. “They have give me free rein because they can see the benefits from it, both personal benefits for me and benefits for the firm in terms of raising the profile of Smith & Williamson. It’s also about the firm giving something back.” Getting stuck in and working with others to effect change is clearly something that thrills Empson. That being the case, his year as IMC president should be a fulfilling one, both for him and for the Institute. Sarah Perrin is a freelance journalist. BOB EMPSON Education – Bristol University degree in geography CAREER 1981 – 85 – BP Oil International – marketing and planning posts, in the HQ and on secondment to BP Southern Africa and UK subsidiary Duckhams 1985 – 87 Halliday & Partners – consultant 1987 – 92 Baker Tilly Management Consultants Ltd – director 1992 – Smith & Williamson – director and partner (since 1993).

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