A Final Bow to McKinsey's High Priest

Marvin Bower, 99 when he died on Jan. 22, raised management consulting to a profession, stamping his strict values all over it

By John A. Byrne

Tom Watson Jr., who helped to make IBM one of the world's greatest corporations, had many virtures. But patience wasn't one of them. So much so that when McKinsey & Co. leader Marvin Bower once presented the conclusions of a consulting study to IBM and Watson, Bower attached small gobs of glue on each of the 20 or so pages of the firm's handout.

"If Tom tried to peek ahead, the pages would make a ripping sound, and Marvin would scold him," laughs Ron Daniel, a former McKinsey director. It was, adds Daniel, a classic "Bowerism," one of many comical idiosyncrasies of the legendary business figure who died on Jan. 22 at the age of 99.

Known as the father of management consulting, Bower was McKinsey's high priest, the man who made the partnership the gold standard in its industry. His most important contribution was the idea that consulting wasn't a business but a profession. He strongly believed that, like the best doctors and lawyers, consultants should always put the interests of their clients first, conduct themselves ethically at all times, and always tell clients the truth -- rather than what they wanted to hear.


  His early beliefs became the core values that allowed McKinsey to develop into the world's most prestigious consulting firm. In an e-mail to McKinsey employees on Jan. 23, Managing Director Rajat Gupta praised Bower as a friend and "our father figure." Wrote Gupta: "Many of us will continue to make choices for the rest of our professional careers based in large part on the question we often ask ourselves: 'What would Marvin have done?'"

Bower also created one of the world's most productive factories for corporate leaders. Over the years, hundreds of McKinsey alums moved on to lead some of the most powerful and influential companies in the world, from Amgen, 3M, and Morgan Stanley-Dean Witter, to British retail giant Marks & Spencer. Much of McKinsey's talent was originally harvested from graduate business school campuses, a practice pioneered by Bower in the mid-1950s when he was the first to systematically recruit MBAs from the best schools.

Bower's career in business was largely accidental. After doing his undergraduate work at Brown University, he went to Harvard Law School, graduating in 1928. He applied for a job at Jones Day, one of the most prestigious law firms in Cleveland. But he his grades at Harvard weren't good enough for the firm, so he decided instead to go on to the then fledgling Harvard Business School to strengthen his record. He succeeded, finally joining Jones Day's corporate-law practice after earning his MBA.


  He joined the New York office of Chicago-based James O. McKinsey & Co. in 1933, when it had only 18 professionals in the two locations. After McKinsey's death in 1937, Bower helped reestablish the company in New York and eventually served as its managing director from 1950 to 1967.

The vision Bower had for McKinsey came straight from his experiences at Jones Day. He wanted to bring the professional standards of a top law firm to what was then called management engineering. His goal for McKinsey was to move consulting from shop-floor efficiency studies to major strategy reviews in the executive suites of General Motors, IBM, and the Bank of England, to name a few of the world's largest and most important McKinsey clients.

He succeeded beyond his wildest hopes. Today, McKinsey employs some 7,700 consultants in 84 locations, with $3.4 billion in annual revenues. The firm's prestige took something of a hit in recent years due to its extensive consulting work with Enron Corp., which has become a symbol for corporate greed and malfeasance (see BW Cover Story, 7/8/02, "Inside McKinsey"). But McKinsey's roster of blue chip clients, ranging from Hewlett-Packard to Johnson & Johnson, still remains second to none. By John A. Byrne


  In establishing the firm's core values, Bower was sometimes dogmatic and autocratic. "He could be a fearsome character if he felt you were doing something wrong," recalls Jon Katzenbach, a former McKinsey senior partner. "He was very tough on people in the firm if he thought they were behaving in nonprofessional ways." Adds Daniel, who was managing partner of McKinsey from 1976 to 1988: "He was intimidating, but he didn't destroy your soul. He was the best person I ever saw give critical feedback to someone. He could criticize your work but always left the human being intact."

Though Bower was a man of small stature, his example loomed large. He always wrote up his own interview notes, a task that most McKinsey partners would hand to their associates. And unlike most of his partners, Bower was known to keep his calendar, make his appointments, answer his phone, place his own calls, and edit his own documents.

For decades, Bower would routinely board the 7:32 a.m. commuter train that whisked him from his adopted hometown of Bronxville, N.Y., to Grand Central Station, then quickly march the few blocks to McKinsey's offices. Immaculately dressed in a Brooks Brothers' dark suit, a starched white shirt, and a hat, he was the very image of America's "Organization Man" in the 1950s.

Just as IBM's culture once required salesmen to wear white shirts, Bower long believed that every McKinsey consultant's head should be topped by a hat. Indeed, he insisted that consultants not only wear hats but also over-the-calf socks -- even when the hippie styles of the Woodstock era became popular fashion.


  Katzenbach recalls riding in a New York elevator with Bower shortly after joining the firm in 1961. The new recruit apparently offended Bower's sensibilities by wearing a hat with a feather in the hat band.

"I think you have a spot of some kind on your hat," Bower told him. "Let me brush it off."

"It's not a spot," replied Katzenbach. "It's a feather."

"No, Jon, it's a spot," retorted Bower, before taking the feather off his hat.

Says Katzenbach today: "He did it because McKinsey consultants didn't wear feathers in our hats."

Bower created rigid rules for consulting reports, client presentations, and even the format of letters, down to the margins and indentations. Once, displeased that too many ellipses and dashes were making their way into McKinsey's trademark blue-covered reports, he dashed off a memo banning them, written as usual on green stationery. But his attention to detail was always in the service of making the firm the very model of professionalism.


  He had far more impact on the partnership than its actual founder, James McKinsey. Yet, Bower never wanted his name on the firm's letterhead. And in perhaps the ultimate selfless act, he decided to sell his stock to the other partners at book value, rather than at a vast premium that might have forced the company into debt. That single decision helped make McKinsey an enduring institution, by more easily allowing the transfer of ownership and power to larger numbers of new partners.

"To make that happen, he had to give up some pretty sizable personal wealth," says Robert H. Waterman Jr., a former McKinsey partner and co-author of In Search of Excellence. "He wanted to build an institution rather than his own personal wealth and reputation."

After giving up the managing directorship in 1967, Bower continued to serve clients and the firm, even to the point of articulating McKinsey's values to new recruits at orientation. It wasn't until the spring of 1993 when he finally stopped showing up for work at McKinsey's posh offices at 55 East 52nd St. in New York. After nearly six decades of service, the then 89-year-old moved to Delray, Fla. At the time, his partners sponsored a black-tie farewell, and at a later alumni affair at the Yale Club, a video tribute flashed on a screen. Some 200 McKinseyites, former and present, fell silent. "It was a little like being in church," recalled one.


  Even in retirement, Bower still stayed in touch, often sending hand-written notes in blue pen to colleagues, congratulating them on a new promotion or the publication of a book. As his health deteriorated in more recent years, he increasingly got around his Florida apartment in a chrome walker that he jokingly called "the Cadillac of walkers."

"Even in retirement, he remained in contact with many firm members, and whenever we asked his advice, he always told us exactly what he thought," said Gupta in his message to McKinsey employees. "We will miss him terribly." So will the many clients he served with great distinction and the profession he helped to create.

Byrne, a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York, specializes in management

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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