Practice Profile: A team of problem-solvers
When Elliott Davis began offering management consulting services in January 2018, it represented a strategic and timely evolution for the Top 100 Firm.
Leading the service line is practice leader Tom Uva, who Elliott Davis CEO Rick Davis called in 2017 to gauge his interest in helping establish the new practice. When he picked up the call, Uva was six blocks away from the 94-year-old firm’s headquarters, living in Greenville, South Carolina, as the chief information officer of a supply chain/distribution company and an adjunct faculty member at the Clemson University School of Business.
Uva’s nearly 30 years of operational experience includes roles as a vice president in the aerospace and defense, distribution, financial services and public utilities industries, and more than a decade as a CIO. In addition to Clemson, Uva also teaches graduate-level classes at Syracuse University.
Davis was eager to bring Uva and his expertise on to the firm, and Uva was equally enthusiastic to assume the role, ready with a clear vision that would require the firm to widen the scope of its more conventional offerings.
“A year-and-a-half ago, management consulting services didn’t exist in the firm,” Uva said. “It’s a 100-year-old CPA firm, with tax, audit and assurance. Over time, the third leg was advisory and consulting. Within the consulting leg of the stool are five disciplines, all which had some tie back to the traditional heritage of a CPA firm. Somehow that evolved from traditional CPA and accounting systems to consulting, forensic and valuation … The sixth consulting practice is MCS. It has zero legacy and heritage with the CPA firm, but the firm’s desire to move into the advisory space and go beyond the traditional CPA focus. On Jan. 1, 2018, MCS was born.”
Having never worked in professional services, Uva provided a fresh perspective to the new practice that also directed his hiring strategy, where he sought out professionals with operational backgrounds. The practice currently employs six full-time professionals and another stable of part-time and contract team members, while also bringing in professionals from other service lines, such as cybersecurity.
“The first thing, once we established the focus of the practice, was looking for people who had the right operational background,” Uva explained. “That was very important to me. When you go in to meet with someone, and you’re speaking with the officers, owners, having a C-level conversation, you want to be able to go sit in
that room, maybe to the CEO, CIO, [and say], ‘I haven’t sat in your chair, but [I have] sat in the one next to it. I understand the operational pressure you’re under.’ And at the same time, try to fix these other things. They ask about backgrounds, and as soon as they find out we’re really not consultants, but operators by trade, the conversation and the tenor of the conversation changes immediately. That’s our biggest advantage … We know how to run divisions and companies with high degrees
The MCS practice contains six disciplines, Uva explained:
1. Business strategy.
2. Business optimization, including the Lean Six Sigma method and lean design.
3. Project management, delivery and execution.
4. Technology advisory. “We have a different spin on this one,” Uva clarified. “It’s not about building your website or system, but a CIO-, CEO-, CFO-level conversation. The first shot over the bow on technology strategy for a company — does it exist and does it align to the business?”
5. M&A, both buy- and sell-side. “Very specifically, our firm had a practice in the financial space,” he said. “It’s our focus to complement that, with operations and technology, for due diligence and post-close integration.”
6. Turnaround and recovery. According to Uva, if “someone gets in the hole, and is trying to dig out and the wheels are coming off, we are getting them help to turn around.”
Additionally, Uva added, in the last few months Elliott Davis has made a “financial and operational commitment” to introduce a seventh discipline of data analytics.
Beyond zero to one
“For building the practice, the approach was from the view of the customer, not the view of a professional services firm,” Uva shared. “It’s very specific in terms of what spaces we want to play in. Our intent is not to be all things to all people. In industry, If someone walks into my office and says, ‘I can fix every problem,’ their credibility goes down very fast.”
The practice focuses on clients in the $20 million to $1 billion range, with the ability to scale up if necessary, and is industry-agnostic.
Team members all have “operational experience — good, significant operational experience,” Uva explained. “Eighty-five percent-plus of the challenges [clients] face fall into one or more of [the practice’s six] disciplines. We can attack any one of those disciplines, but the magic starts to happen when you combine it, where one plus one equals five.”
Combining MCS’s disciplines with the rest of the firm’s services has proven more challenging, however, especially given Uva’s original strategy for client growth, which he developed with Elliott Davis’ consulting practice leader Charles Duke. The two had devised a 50/50 revenue model, where much of the business would be from new clients.
Upon further research, however, the plan proved less productive. Uva explored the work of Heidi Gardner, distinguished fellow at the Center on the Legal Profession and faculty chair of the Accelerated Leadership Program at Harvard Law School. She and her team used data to explore the difference between cross-selling and collaborating, and for Uva, “The message was, for any firm, it is disproportionately more profitable to take one client from one service to two, two to three, three to four, etc., [than it is to take] zero to one — existing clients versus new clients.”
With this data in hand, he knocked on Duke’s door and said, “We’ve got this thing all wrong,” Uva recalled. “If we really believe the data, in the first year, we focus 95 percent of capture efforts on existing clients, and 5 percent only shows up or falls off the back of a truck in front of us.” That ratio would then flex to 90-to-10 in the second year, and so on, he explained.
“The first three months out of the gate, we looked at the data, and our whole approach changed,” Uva acknowledged. “Our challenge was to have people internally understand what we do.”
While MCS covers a lot of ground, as obvious in the range of disciplines, the focus can also be distilled into its team members being problem-solvers, Uva said.
“Most engagements tend to be not a week or two weeks, or not necessarily full-time, but maybe a day or two per week over a period of time. One example is a company with 15 manufacturing and distribution facilities in 13 countries that does not have a technology strategy and needs a chief information officer. They can’t afford to hire someone like us full-time but they can afford a fraction of us.”
The practice’s biggest demand is in the business optimization discipline, Uva shared — “far and away the largest demand.” He went on to provide one example: “Manufacturers come to us and say, ‘We have a $1.5 million problem. Any given month, $120,000-130,000 of material disappears and we don’t know where it goes, where the truck dumps off raw material. It’s ready to go out the door, $120,000 a month, and we have no idea where it’s going.’ It’s one of many symptoms, if you think of the world in terms of symptoms and causes. No one could identify the cause.”
Elliott Davis’ large and long-standing manufacturing and distribution service line represents one industry in which the MCS practice has been successful.
“We found within the firm, given the client mix of the firm, certain industries make more sense for us to focus on from a business development perspective, hit rate and return, and the size of engagement,” Uva explained. “If something from higher education fell off the table in front of us, for us to go into it, is that the best use of time? No. If something is established in the firm, we focus heavily on making sure [everyone] is highly aware of the key intersections between industry groups and consulting practices, [for example] MCS and financial services.”
Last fall, Elliott Davis tasked each group within the firm to identify three or four areas of intersection and profit potential. In addition to M&D, Uva shared, firm professionals also identified transaction advisory, real estate and construction.
These areas of collaboration, as Gardner would define them, support Uva’s vision for continued MCS growth. While the caliber of talent he seeks for his team can be difficult to bring in, he has found them — often in various stages of their career. Uva counts a few retired or semi-retired executives as contract members of the team, who are able to contribute through the flexibility of the practice’s engagements.
These former executives of big corporations clearly don’t need to continue working, Uva explained; they are on his team because they want to be. They share his passion for management consulting services and its continued trajectory within Elliott Davis.
“The vision is consistent,” Uva said. “We believe we’ve got it right and the growth of the practice tells us we have it right. The interest and demand in the markets clearly are there; it’s a matter of continuing to grow and expanding the footprint in the ecosystem. We’ve had the first couple of hires outside of Greenville, full-time in Charlotte and Charleston … The plan, in four to five years, is we are probably going to accelerate. It’s a challenge to find good people. But it’s our intention to see this team ultimately become 40 to 45 people.”
At A Glance
Firm Elliott Davis
Headquarters Greenville, South Carolina
CEO Richard Davis
No. of partners/staff 77/686
Year founded 1920
Director of management consulting services Tom Uva