BCG: Very Bullish on the MBA

by John A. Byrne on

To meet aggressive plans for growth, Boston Consulting Group may have to double its hiring of freshly minted MBA graduates over the next five years, according to a top official at the consulting firm. This year, the prestigious consulting firm expects its MBA hiring to be up a whopping 18% over 2010.

The increase in hiring is a strong vote of confidence in the top business schools and the MBAs they produce. After consulting rival McKinsey & Co., Boston Consulting Group is the world’s largest hirer of MBAs from top business schools (see story on the largest recruiters of top MBAs). In a typical year, BCG brings aboard hundreds of MBAs for a growing network of 71 offices in 41 countries. BCG, which posted $2.75 billion in 2009 revenue, won’t publicly disclose the exact number of hirers, but B-school employment reports show that the company brought in well over 300 MBAs last year.

The 18% rise in MBA hiring is even more striking because the comparative number in the previous year also was strong, growing in double digits.  “We have been hiring aggressively throughout the downturn,” says Mel Wolfgang, who oversees the firm’s recruiting of MBAs and PhDs in the Americas. “Every time we think about the next class, we think of it as greater. We are about to launch the intern campaign and it will be our largest intern class ever. We are feeling good about the future.”

In fact, Wolfgang said he is concerned that the current group of elite schools on BCG’s recruiting schedule will not be able to meet the company’s needs in the near future. “I’m worried that during the next five to seven years, when we double in size, we’ll have to essentially bring in double the number of people we bring in today. Where are we going to get that talent? We just can’t do that from the same core schools we recruit from today. It has to come from a broader set of schools and from international schools.”

BCG DRAWS LARGEST NUMBER OF MBAS FROM FOUR SCHOOLS: HARVARD, STANFORD, WHARTON & KELLOGG.

Each year, BCG recruits at more than 25 business schools in the U.S. and Canada, he says, with 80% of the incoming class of MBAs coming from some 15 campuses. Wolfgang said the four top schools where BCG gets the largest number of MBAs are Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and Kellogg. Last year, BCG hired more than 150 MBAs from those four schools alone, including 43 from Wharton and 35 from Kellogg. The company also aggressively recruited MBAs at Columbia (25), Chicago (19), Dartmouth, MIT Sloan (14), Duke (8), Michigan (6) and Virginia’s Darden School.

These hires, moreover, do not include BCG’s recruiting efforts in other parts of the world, particularly Europe and Asia. In each of the last three years, for example, BCG has hired MBAs in double-digits from both INSEAD (44 hires in 2009) in France and London Business School (10) in the U.K. During a recent BCG presentation at London, the company’s partners told students that 15 of its offices now “are keen to recruit” from London, a number that is up from eight previously and is likely to rise to about 25 offices over the next year.

The firm receives more than 30,000 applicants a year. Between 5,000 and 10,000 of them are from the core campuses that BCG draws upon for the majority of its MBA hires.

What the BCG partner is seeing in the MBA marketplace bodes well for the Class of 2011. “We have gone from having almost no competition in the fall of 2008 to a big ramp up this past season,” he says. “This past fall, four months ago, the banks really started coming back. We also saw not only a resurgence of consulting but private equity, venture capital, and hedge funds, which had been sleepy for a two-year period, began to push very hard.”

Wolfgang said the early signs of a recovery in MBA hiring could be spotted a year ago when many MBA recruiters starting coming back for interns for the summer of 2010. “They were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel then,” he says. But as MBA recruiters began extending offers to Class of 2011 students late last year, the competition for the best and the brightest has really ratcheted up.

He said many companies are again increasing their pay packages to MBAs after a setback during the economic meltdown. At Wharton last year, for example, the median starting salary for MBAs going into consulting fell by $5,000 to $120,000. “Competition that we butt up against brought their overall packages down during the recession,” he said. “We didn’t think that was necessary and maintained our current compensation levels.” Instead, BCG put more flexibility into its compensation packages, allowing hirers to decide the ratio of base pay to bonus within a set range. “Our brand on campus has never been stronger,” added Wolfgang. We’re at the top of student preferences and that has made it easier for us. But there has been a tremendous amount of investment on our part and there is a big push to get this Class of 2011 signed up.”

BCG BELIEVES THE QUALITY OF MBA STUDENTS TO BE AMONG THE BEST EVER.

Wolfgang said the firm is especially impressed with the caliber of MBA students it has recruited in recent years. “These are two really strong classes that we just recruited,” he said. “The recession probably had some impact on people’s decisions to return to schools. There is an incredible quality of candidates and an uptick in the GMAT and GPA averages at the top schools. People whose opportunity costs were in the many hundreds of thousands on Wall Street didn’t have that same opportunity cost. So you see a rich and interesting group of students on MBA campuses right now. We are fortunate that our hiring demands are increasing at a time when the richness of the pool is so great.”

As other MBA employers return to a more aggressive hiring mode, Wolfgang said that his industry must continue to promote consulting as an attractive career option to the best MBA candidates. “Overall, consulting numbers are dropping because of a variety of other careers have become available in finance, technology and entrepreneurship,” he said. “That was less prevalent in the past.” At Harvard Business School, for example, 24% of the Class of 2010 went into consulting, down from a peak of 38% in 2001.

THE LURE OF THE $500,000 OFFER.

The largest single industry hiring MBAs at Harvard is finance, where 34% of last year’s class headed, partly because that’s where the big money is. Private equity firms and hedge funds have been paying the highest starting salaries and bonuses for MBAs for a number of years (see story on the highest paid MBAs of 2010). “There is always this lure of the $500,000 offer,” he said. “It’s a real draw and there are people who will not even apply to consulting because they won’t get one of the three half-a-million-dollar offers that will be extended on their campus that fall. I have yet to meet a person who gets that kind of money, but we know it’s out there and it has caused a lot of conversation. The promise of a half a million dollars to a 27-year-old MBA is causing the consulting industry to be caught in the middle between ‘you don’t have a life but you’ll make a lot of money’ or ‘you’ll work hard and do very well.’

“These kids are on the fence,” adds Wolfgang. “Part of what the consulting industry needs to do is reinforce all the positive things it can offer to MBA students along the lines of learning on the job, the ability to work with senior clients, and the accelerant to your career that a consulting job can bring.”

  • Consultant

    I would say, this trend is going to go up this year as well. Expectations other biggies like Mckinsey, Bain also are boosting their MBA recruits. A strong year ahead for consulting focussed ppl.

  • http://poetsandquants.com/members/jbyrne/ John A. Byrne

    I agree. I interviewed the directors of career services at Stanford, Kellogg and Chicago this week and they all said that consulting is huge this year. All the major firms have very aggressive hiring goals. An 18 percent increase, however, for a firm that already hires more than 300 MBAs a year is big, especially when the year earlier comparison is strong.

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