Guiding spirit: OC&C founder and chairman emeritus Chris Outram talks about a career spent helping clients solve seemingly impossible problems
After close to 35 years, during which he has founded and successfully run a leading international consultancy business, Chris Outram has in certain senses seen it all. There have been the issues arising from economic cycles, the shift of manufacturing centres, the impact of globalisation, the rise of a consumer culture, and the immense changes wrought by the march of new digital revolution.
But anticipating and interpreting what will come next – and helping clients plan for, and deal with, that in their respective sectors – keeps him travelling the world, as fascinated and engaged as ever.
“We have some really ambitious targets,” says the founder and chairman emeritus of OC&C Strategy Consultants, a UK-based firm with worldwide interests and a steadily expanding presence in Hong Kong and in Asia. “Especially in China, the rate of innovation is huge. Digitally, consumers there are more sophisticated than in Europe or North America – already 358 million are making payments on their mobile phones – so, for us, that will be a key engine of growth. The firm focuses on four main areas: retail, FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods), media and B2B (business-to-business) services– but is not restricted to that. The range and diversity of the firm’s projects can mean advising on anything from corporate strategy and organisational structure to operational performance, marketing initiatives, or getting the intended benefits from mergers and acquisitions.
“Our clients are executives running companies at the peak of their careers – and the shareholders behind them,” Outram says. “Working with so many talented people is as good as it gets.”
A bright student and self-confessed “swot”, Outram had no interest in the youth movements and sit-ins of the late 1960s. He took first-class honours in a dual degree at Birmingham University before joining a company which developed patented technology for the construction industry.
“My parents had wandered around the world because of my father’s job with the RAF,” he says. “They wanted me to be an engineer, but I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic, so I read industrial economics too as my ‘get out of jail’ card.”
Getting into consulting – which, according to Outram, didn’t exist as a career back then as it does now – was quite accidental. It came about when, having deferred a couple of times, he went to at the suggestion of the people at Insead business school outside Paris, where he did an MBA in 1976. The original intention had been to go straight back to his then-employer, but plans changed when the people at INSEAD suggested that anyone who was any good should become a consultant. Taking the hint, he applied to the Boston Consulting Group, already one of the better known names in the field, and spent an instructive two years learning the ropes until “seduced” to join one of the firm’s Dutch clients.
On paper, it looked a great move. Unfortunately, on closer acquaintance, the 4,000-strong joint venture proved to have a lot wrong with it and was, in fact, heading for bankruptcy, which happened two months after Outram had made his departure.
“I didn’t leave because I was super smart, but because I needed to get back to a pregnant wife in London,” he says.
The time seemed right to go back into consulting – with Booz Allen Hamilton – a decision borne out by subsequent approaches from several top accounting firms with offers to become their in-house head of strategy.
Assessing the omens and looking ahead, Outram opted for something bolder. In 1987, with support from Coopers & Lybrand, he founded OC&C as a small, separate entity specialising in strategy yet with the scope to expand and deal with newly emerging issues in a spectrum of industries. “To my surprise, I suddenly became an entrepreneur,” he says. “It was a tall order, but we’ve done a good job and now have 80-odd partners, around 500 consultants, and offices in 10 countries, including China, India and the United States.”
These days, Outram is no longer responsible for day-to-day management; he passed that on 11 years ago. As a result, though, he has been able to get back to the “privileged existence” of working with clients, tackling the “tough stuff” which concerns them, and solving problems that can seem almost impossibly difficult to the uninitiated.
In some cases, these relate to practical implications of the rapid growth of e-commerce, omni-channel sales, and the opportunities created by the mobile revolution. In others, analysis may focus more on how a business should respond to the knock-on effects of sociological change, perhaps with special reference to such as developments in mainland China and its shift from a traditional manufacturing-led economy to one which is far more service-oriented.
“In general, problems happen when clients get complacent about their business model and, for example, don’t move fast enough with the change to digital,” he says. “But we also see instances where managers are quite tolerant of mediocre performance. Long term, that can be quite destructive, but it can be solved by having a system of regular and open appraisals.”
With the advantages of a fairly flexible schedule, Outram has also found time over the last four years to write two books and lend assistance to a number of projects, spurred by an interest in giving back. These include raising funds for an NGO setting up schools in remote rural communities in Nepal, Cambodia and Myanmar, guiding a small technology business, and helping an organisation which focuses on addressing eating disorders.
“Nowadays, there are different attitudes to work and how to measure personal success,” he says. “For me, it has been inspiring to see how building a school can so directly change lives.”
Chris Outram’s tips on being a top consultant.
See the bigger picture “It is important to be smart and focused, but we also need people who are flexible enough to deal with nuclear energy one month and food production the next. They have to process all that different information a sensible way.”
Abandon your ego “You work with very accomplished individuals, so you must be very collaborative and realise that arrogance plays no part in what we do.”
See the other side “Consultants must understand how to communicate about very complex concepts and areas where we pretty much disagree with the client. For this, you have to be respectful and able to find alternatives.”
Establish trust “In our team, we have to work some intensely hard long days, and even nights. Therefore, it makes a big difference if you are adept at building an open, constructive relationship with colleagues and clients.”
Focus on feedback “If consultants are not getting the best out of themselves and need to change their behaviour, we will point it out in appraisals at the end of each project.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Guiding spirit.