Back in 1991, Andersen consultant Andy Rolfe reached the fork in the road all-too-familiar to career consultants: to partner, or not to partner? He enjoyed his work at Andersen, where he helped them build their strategic services practice, but he believed in doing things a certain way, and knew that moving a ship as large as Andersen would take more time than he was willing to wait. So he set out on his own, “going from the world’s largest consulting firm to the world’s smallest, overnight.” He formed The Keystone Group, a strategy and operations firm, and the rest is history. Today, Keystone operates in Chicago, Atlanta and Dallas, and has had an average revenue growth rate of 22 percent for each of the last four years. Rolfe sat down with Consulting to talk about how he built the kind of firm he wanted to work for.
Consulting: What made you decide to start a consulting firm?
Rolfe: I spent the first nine years of my career at Andersen, which is now Accenture. I had a terrific experience there. I worked with great clients, smart people and on interesting projects. As I got more senior in the firm it became more participative and decision-making and I understood how the firm made decisions. As much as I liked the work there were some things I wasn’t so thrilled with and when I got to the point where I had to decide whether a partnership was going to be for me I thought it was going to be a very long time before I was going to be in the position to convince the firm to see it my way. I was fairly young at the time and decided if I really believed in those concepts and doing things a little differently I should have the intestinal fortitude to try it out. So I went from the world’s largest firm to the world’s smallest, overnight.
Consulting: How have you weathered the economic ups and downs as a firm of your size?
Rolfe: We have, I think, quite a good record. We’ve not really had much in the way of ups and downs; we’re far more like the tortoise than the hare. We’ve had steady growth and steady progress. In 23 years we have never laid off one individual because of our financial performance, which puts us in an unusual company I’d imagine. When I started the firm I had objectives I wanted the firm to be about and we’ve stayed true to them.
Consulting: For example?
Rolfe: First, I wanted us to be the best at what we did and always behave in a way that we’d be proud to read about in the front page of the newspaper. What that means as a very small firm is that you can’t look somebody in the eye and say “We do everything for everyone.” Because of that, it’s caused us to need to be focused. So we say no to opportunities to work on projects almost as often as we say yes, because for us it’s really important for us to stay focused and maintain that credibility. You get a lot of competitive power if you sit with an executive and say, “This is all we do, we don’t do anything else.”