Executive Q&A: Bain’s Bob Bechek

Bain Office in Chicago

Bain Office in Chicago

There was a period of my career where I spent six years working with a bank gobbling up other banks following the deregulation of interstate banking in the United States. There again, government regulation and the role of banks in the economy were core issues and the change in the U.S. banking system to become more like other countries was highly relevant to the chess game that I was working with my client to create quite a significant business success story. The regulatory context was very, very relevant.

Most of my career was in the high tech industry. Software, in particular, was the thing I really knew. At one point, I was head of our global tech practice. At the time, China was trying to join the WTO and then became the workshop of the world. Obviously, the supply chains for the tech industry globalized. And it became extraordinarily relevant to all of the hardware industries…as those layers increasingly moved to China.

So those are three examples where macro, in terms of the role of government, central banks, and international trade, was absolutely relevant to what I was working on.

Before you entered business school, you’d earned a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and were a manager at a robotics firm. What was your motivation behind taking two years away from business and earning an MBA?

I was a general manager at a young age. After working in France for a couple of years, I started the U.S. subsidiary. I was a leading a small, (maybe $5-$6 million in revenue), high growth business in a sexy industry. Robotics was on the cover of Time magazine at the time and so forth.

Here’s a little anecdote about when I applied to business school. HBS, at the time, did not interview applicants, yet they asked me to fly to Cambridge. I didn’t think that was a good thing. When I came in for the interview, it actually seemed like a softball interview, but they said to me, ‘You have the job most of our students are trying to get when they graduate. Why do you want to come to business school?’ [It was] a little bit like the question you’re asking me.

From my recollection, there were three things that I believe were on my mind. First, I worried that if I keep doing what I’m doing, will I regret it when I’m 40? I could feel that the success I was having then and the income I was making was not actually going to set up well. Basically, I wanted a broader foundation for my career in business. Back then, I intended fully to return to the high tech venture community. That was the main reason.

Second, while we were doing really well – our product was a decade ahead of the market and we were the only profitable player – I didn’t think it would end well. It was basically going to be a scale game and we were a small player.

And the third, parenthetically, was that my dad was on my back because I’d put it off for two years in a row, so I applied.

Many times, MBA students have an epiphany or a defining moment. For example, they may come into a program looking to become a product manager and end up thriving in corporate finance and leave as an investment banker. Tell us about the process (or that moment) when you realized, ‘I want to work in consulting.’

Understand a little bit where I was coming from when I was in b-school. I was a kid who had more odd jobs than a lot of people going back to when I was a boy – from home construction to a steel factory UAW job. I was a technician in a nuclear reactor facility. I delivered pizzas and newspapers and mowed lawns. I did different MIT high tech jobs, such as one of the first word processing and computer typesetting companies. I was on a shopping center maintenance crew. I’d done a lot of that and I’d also had this experience that we were talking about earlier, some real management experience with the painting robot business mostly selling to the auto industry. So I’d been in more auto plants than a lot of 25 year-olds.

Given all that, it may sound odd to say, but I had an appetite to try what I called, ‘business with a suit on.’ That is, working with some really talented and educated people in a different kind of environment. I wanted to at least try that. In addition, one of my earliest mentors suggested that would be the best learning experience for the summer.

Bain consultants in Antarctica he only continent without a Bain office.

Bain consultants in Antarctica — the only continent without a Bain office.

Now, I wanted to try that for the summer. I was skeptical that I would want to do that for full-time. And I was very candid in my interviews with recruiters. I had a phenomenal internship at Bain. I was very surprised during my summer experience at the quality of the people that I would have the opportunity to learn from, in particular Royce Yudkoff who ultimately recruited me.

I was a slow poke in accepting my offer [from Bain]. In my second year at HBS, I organized a conference on entrepreneurship on behalf of (what was called then) the Small Business and New Enterprise Club.  And this conference, in February or March of my second year, I invited a lot of entrepreneurs to come to campus and talk to the students. It was important to me because business school at that time was pretty oriented to careers in big business. The conference was very well-attended. I think it was a huge success. I felt proud of having led it. And the next day, I accepted my Bain offer. It was a very entrepreneurial firm and I felt it was consistent and had those ingredients. Rather than returning to the tech venture community, I went to a professional services firm.

30 years ago next month, I started my internship with Bain & Company. If I hadn’t been a consultant] I probably would’ve gone back to the MIT high tech orbit in some sort. Not robotics in particular, but there was a lot going on at the time. I remember a firm called Kleiner-Perkins kept trying to get me to interview with them and I wasn’t going to go out to the Bay Area. Had I not been married, I think sales and trading in New York for the summer would’ve had appeal. There is just a lot of opportunity that you get exposed to through the MBA students and their experiences. I found that very rich and I was interested in a lot of things. The narrow answer to your question is the high tech venture community is what I almost certainly would’ve done.

You started at Bain & Company in 1987 right after you graduated from Harvard Business School. During your years at Harvard, what attracted you to Bain? What did you do during your two years in business school that gave you an edge over other candidates looking to get into Bain?

What attracted me to Bain was that I felt like I found a hot firm that was focused entirely and passionately on results or impact rather than reports (in the language of the time) and did so within an extraordinarily people-oriented culture that I thought would be very good for me, given my particular nature.

As I was referring to earlier, I found a little bit to my surprise that it was an amazing group of people to learn from. More generally, apart from the attraction of Bain, why did I pivot to thinking consulting would be a good step for me versus high tech? My thinking at the time on that front was my desire to improve my communication skills. And I wanted more broadening, more even given my particular background than what I picked up in my MBA experience. And I thought consulting offered an opportunity to learn at the fastest clip possible while drawing upon my strengths…a combination of problem-solving and interpersonal skills. That remained to be seen, but that was my hunch that I could be strong enough on each of those fronts to be good at it.

[As far as what attracted Bain to me], it certainly wasn’t my good looks. This may sound banal, but I did something valuable that’s basic and available to every one of your readers. Believe it or not, I went to the placement office and filled out the career questionnaire. And I did so honestly. That is, writing it out only for myself. And my answers about the obvious kinds of things: My strengths and weaknesses; why do I want to do such-and-such; [and] why do I think I would be good at it. I thought about it literally the night before and [being authentic] served me very well in the interview.

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