Big Four Firms Dominate U.S. Consulting Market

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The Big Four accounting firms have come roaring back into the consulting field in the years after the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 forced three of them to shed their consulting units and now dominate the U.S. consulting market, according to a new report.

The Big Four grew 10.9 percent to $19.6 billion in 2015, compared to growth of 7.7 percent in the wider consulting market to nearly $55 billion, according to a new report from Source Global Research. The report found that the Big Four’s market share is now 65 percent bigger than the next-largest firm type—technology firms, that is—and is growing much faster.

“They’ve got about 35 percent of the entire U.S. consulting market share, which is extraordinary,” said Source Global Research director Edward Haigh. “That replicates what we see elsewhere as well, and their growth is higher than anybody else. They’re 10.9 percent in 2015.”

Much of the growth stems from the Big Four’s aggressive pursuit of an expensive acquisition agenda that has transformed the market over the past few years. For example, PwC completed its acquisition of Booz & Company in April 2014, renaming it Strategy&. Deloitte acquired Monitor Group in 2013, renaming it Monitor Deloitte. Ernst & Young acquired the Parthenon Group in 2014. KPMG acquired Beacon Partners in 2015, along with Towers Watson’s Human Resources Service Delivery practice.

“We have to point to the degree of inorganic growth that’s going on there,” said Haigh. “One of the reasons why they’re doing so well is they’re buying everybody, and they’re desperately trying to increase capability across the spectrum. They’re trying to go after these big transformation projects and dominate the consulting market now. The past consulting projects tended to be discrete projects within one particular area of the business. The nature of today’s market is that you get these big multifunctional, multigeographical transformation projects that encompass everything from the dividing of the strategy to the advice around the technology to the implementation of the technology to the human part. Firms are trying to bolster their capabilities in the areas where they are not traditionally strong. The Big Four are trying to buy up all the bits of capability that they don’t feel they have.”

Acquisition isn’t the sole factor driving growth, the report acknowledged. Demand from the financial services sector and an increasing interest in risk consulting—both of which are signature areas for the Big Four—are also driving significant growth at the firms.

Risk and regulatory work across the U.S. consulting market grew 7.8 percent this past year to over $14 billion. However, the hottest area for many firms is cybersecurity consulting, thanks to headline-grabbing news stories about data breaches. The Big Four have been building their capabilities in all these areas.

“There’s a certain amount of truth in the idea that they’re quite well placed in the middle,” said Haigh. “They’re soup to nuts firms from an advisory perspective. They do a bit of everything, and that’s quite useful to clients right now, even if behind that there’s still a bit of a sense amongst many clients that these guys are still accountants with a consulting division. That can be detrimental to them. Nevertheless, these are big, well established, re-established practices for them.”

But there is still a lot of competition in the consulting world. Haigh noted the high-profile nature of cybersecurity work means a whole range of consulting firms want to get in on the act. “Technology might lie at the heart of cybersecurity, but only an organization-wide approach is appropriate in preventing cybercrime, which means that the Big Four, strategy firms, technology firms, and specialists are all vying for position in this market,” he said.

Tracy Benard, a managing partner in KPMG’s Advisory practice, noted, “Cyber and cybersecurity are still concerns for a lot of people. From a technology perspective, augmenting the workforce with robotics and cognitive capability may be an opportunity to cut costs and decrease some risk exposure, but it also poses new risks that we are helping clients address.”

Meanwhile, the increasing commoditization of regulatory work—a traditional Big Four service— presents a significant challenge for the firms. That is part of the motivation behind their determination to gain the lead in the lucrative digitization market. “While they do seem to be making headway in this area, whether they can really build the strategy chops necessary to make themselves synonymous with high-end digital transformation remains to be seen,” said the report.

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