GERMANY, 1981. A Rhodes scholar, shiny new Oxford doctorate in his dossier, has just embarked on a promising career in investment banking. For 28-year-old Hans-Paul Bürkner, the world is his oyster. Yet he resigns, opting instead to join a small American firm he has never heard of, in a business he knows nothing about. 'The advertisements in the newspapers were quite interesting,' he says by way of explanation.
Very soon, though, he realises that the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a management consultancy with 250 people worldwide, is different. Its founder, Bruce Henderson, has a vision for his company: 'We want to change the world'; and the young Bürkner buys into it completely.
Thirty years on, Hans-Paul Bürkner is president and CEO of BCG, now 8,000-strong, with 74 offices in 42 countries. BCG is considered one of the most highly regarded names in the business. The company is regularly cited by the likes of Forbes and Consulting magazine as one of the best to work for. And under Mr Bürkner, it still wants to change the world.
True to his laid-back, down-to-earth reputation, Mr Bürkner's Raffles Conversation with BT is comfortably informal. We are in the meeting room of BCG's office on the 44th floor of Singapore Land Tower, the city's Central Business District sumptuously visible through the large windows. There are no minders. Mr Bürkner talks while munching from a fruit bowl - 'Sorry, I haven't had breakfast,' he apologises - kicking off the conversation with observations about the importance of immigrant talent to many economies, Singapore's included.
His interest in other cultures was nurtured from his youth, he reveals. 'My father travelled a lot, designing and building factories around the world. And he brought back with him lots of books. And among the things he brought were Japanese textbooks, so I also started to learn how to write Kanji.
'Then I read a book about the history of technology in China, which made me very interested in China's development, how China had been a superpower for a long, long time. And when you read about these countries, it's very interesting to realise that you actually have a very narrow view of the world. So, even though I did not travel at that time, I read a lot about those countries, especially in Asia. It was enormously fascinating.
'And in university I did Chinese, and I also did a Japanese intensive course. Now I must admit, I should have probably focused on one thing and really learned it well. I wish I could speak and read and write Putonghua to the limited extent I could in the '70s.'
A keen interest in development economics saw him move to Yale University for a Master's degree. This was followed by a Rhodes scholarship, typically awarded for all-round academic and extra-curricular excellence. Pressed on how he won this prestigious award, he ventures that besides achievements in athletics - 'although that was not my prime interest' - it was his efforts in 'making a small difference' that probably clinched it for him. 'I was engaged in an initiative to support children with immigrant backgrounds, Turkish children, in Germany,' he reveals somewhat reluctantly.
The Rhodes scholarship took him to Oxford University where he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree, following a thesis on savings behaviour and savings mobilisation in the Philippines and Thailand which took him to the two Asean countries in 1977-78. 'It was a great period,' he recalls.
The future seemed set in gleaming marble when he entered the world of corporate investment banking. But it was not to be.
'I did not feel challenged enough,' he says. 'I had a lot of ideas (but) the head of department told me he would only take me seriously after I had 10 years of experience. And I didn't want to wait so long.'
Passion for change
An ad in the papers intrigued him, and he applied for a position with the Boston Consulting Group. 'I had no idea what consulting was, had never heard of BCG before. And in some ways you could say that it's naïve to go to a firm that you don't know. But the advertisements sounded very challenging, and initially, of course, what you're interested in is just to learn. So I got an offer and started at BCG in Munich.' He pauses, eyes widening with the realisation: 'Almost to the day now, 1st October, '81,' exactly 30 years ago.
And continues: 'That's what I did for the first several years, working for many, many different clients, in many industries, just try to cope with all the challenges. It was very hard work, and very intense.'
He recalls meeting the company's venerable founder early in career. 'He was a very charismatic person, a very passionate person, with great ideas. (But) talking with him was always quite intimidating. At that time I wasn't aware that people tried to avoid sitting next to him, and somehow I found myself sitting next to him.
'And of course, you do try to impress people by having something intelligent to say. But his questions were always coming out of nowhere, and he had this Southern accent which was difficult to understand. That's why it was intimidating. But he was certainly very impressive.
'And he certainly had high aspirations for BCG. Right from the beginning, he started building a very strong team. He always emphasised the need to move forward, move to the next level. And he created the basis for the firm lasting longer than him. So, as a partner, you are a trustee (of the firm) for a number of years, and then you hand over the firm to the next generation. Hopefully, much stronger.'
The founder's vision, 'We want to change the world', refers to using ideas innovatively - an acknowledged strength of the company - 'but also, how we engage with our clients' business, and ultimately, with society', he says.
For Mr Bürkner, that commitment evolved naturally.
'Over time, you see how you can help clients, and you see how you really can make a difference. Then you think, okay, I want also to not only help to transform a client, but maybe an industry. Or maybe a whole economy.'
The reality is that this takes time, and it takes resources, he notes. 'I think you need to understand the context. 1999-2000 was the big e-commerce bubble. And when the e-commerce bubble burst in 2001, and also because of Sept 11, business came down. There was a recession, people were questioning if there still was opportunity in consulting. So one of the key elements then was to bring confidence back. And also to make sure that we really were delivering on our aspiration.
'So that's why we did more social impact work at the global level only around 2004, 2005, because by then we had gotten to a size where we could really put significant resources aside just for that. So it's also a question of scale.'
There have been significant advances since then, he notes with quiet pride - BCG's involvement in with the World Food Programme, Save the Children, WWF, working a lot with the Gates Foundation on global health, 'and increasingly, also, we have a big initiative in education'.
All these coincide with his tenure as CEO from 2003, but 'I would like to emphasise, it's not just me, there are many others within BCG.' He highlights the contributions of Wendy Woods, who currently leads BCG's Social Impact Practice, and a personal mentor, Tom Lewis.
He is also quick to share the credit for BCG's consistent ranking as one of the best companies to work for. 'These things don't come overnight, and they don't come because of one person,' he laughs.
In fact, 'BCG has been one of the most attractive employers for MBAs in the US for many, many years. We were rated number one, or two, or three for many years in the '80s and '90s,' he points out. 'So I think this is the result of many, many years of building on that.'
Nonetheless he is happy to identify the factors he thinks makes the company special to its staff. 'It's a great platform for learning. You can really help clients shape their future, help governments, or certain parts of governments, shape the future.
'And there's an opportunity to really make a difference. Not just, 'I do my job, I fill out some forms, and that's it,' I can really make a difference, I can really contribute to the world.
'And I would say, maybe the third aspect is great teaming, the surroundings in which we work, great colleagues; and we are not in competition. I always tell newcomers, 'You're not in competition with your colleague to your left or to your right. What you really have to see is that the more you succeed together, the more you succeed personally. The more you succeed personally, the more you will succeed together'.'
And does the culture permeate all the way down?
'Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it's indeed so because we have no limited number of promotions. Anyone can become a partner. When they have the willingness, the capability, the persistence, they can become partners.
'Well, there is only one CEO; but otherwise there are almost no limitations. Certainly not the number of partners. Today, we are almost 700. When I joined, I think there were about 50, and there were 50 for quite a while. And this year we'll have 100 new partners. So it's a large number.'
An acceptance of, in fact an insistence on, diversity, is another distinguishing factor. For instance, women play a prominent role in BCG. And that's because it makes economic sense, Mr Bürkner says.
'If you want to make best use of the top talent, you must really tap into all pools. And women are a big part of the top talent pool. Usually their grades at college or university are better than those of men, on average. So that's one reason.
'The second is, more and more of our work is to help clients make significant changes, and that requires a lot of personal and interpersonal skills. And I would say, on average, women are somewhat stronger on the interpersonal skills than men.
'And then thirdly, I think there are quite a number of clients who cater to women as their customers. And so they expect women in the (consulting) team, because they would expect female consultants to have a better understanding of women's needs than men. Of course there would be some men who would dispute that, but in general that's probably what you would also say. So these are three very good reasons.'
And at BCG they walk the talk, Mr Bürkner declares. 'We have increased the share of women over time, with Asia now being the furthest ahead. There is still a lot to do, I would be the first to admit this. But we have made progress.'
Notably, Mr Bürkner has also ignited a lively debate by coming out in favour of keeping older workers in the workforce.
He is adamant: 'Well, I mean, we have a fundamental challenge in Europe, in Japan, to a lesser extent in the Americas. And obviously this will also be true in China in the not-too-distant future. Demographics are changing. We have a stagnating or even declining population. Which means we also have an older population. Which has enormous implications for society. First, you have increasing number of pensioners relative to working people. And you have increasing healthcare costs because of the ageing process. Clearly, you need to ask people to work longer. I mean, you cannot expect people to work 30 years, and then have 30 years of pension benefits. Nobody will be able to pay for that. And so you just have to make sure that you engage people longer. Productively longer.'
And that's the nub, he agrees. 'When people say, 'I will not step aside and have some younger person tell me what to do, I want to be in this position until I retire,' that is probably not possible. You need to have rotation. People can move aside and focus on something they can still do well, but maybe not as the head of department, or whatever. And that change of mindsets, of course, is quite a challenge.'
But the overall principle holds: diversity introduces different viewpoints, catalysing creativity and innovation.
And it's not just a way of coming up with great ideas but also a culture of openness to learn from each other, Mr Bürkner says. 'If I hear the same things, again and again, then, you know, I'm wasting my time. When I go somewhere, I like to learn something. And people from different backgrounds, hopefully, will come up with different ideas. We do not have to agree. But it's important to be open, to learn, and be willing to change your mind.'
President & CEO, Boston Consulting Group
Born December 1952 in Varel, Germany
1971 Ruhr-Universit??t Bochum, courses in Economics, Business Administration, Chinese studies
1973-74 MA, Yale University
1976-80 Rhodes scholar, DPhil Oxford University
1980 Joined Commerzbank AG, Frankfurt
1981 Joined Boston Consulting Group
1991 Opened BCG???s Frankfurt office; led company???s financial institutions practice
2003 Appointed first non-US president and CEO of BCG