There is generally a pecking order for top university graduates with law and business degrees. The cream will work up from accounting to law to investment banking to the ultimate — a job at an elite management consulting firm. And they don’t get any more elite than McKinsey. The firm has almost 10,000 consultants worldwide and revenues of more than $5 billion, and perhaps more critically, the esteem has led to McKinsey becoming one the world’s major executive launching pads.

But it seems the shine is rapidly wearing off the McKinsey brand, with the performances of McKinsey alumni across the world turning the once great consultancy firm into an incubator of criminals and corporate disgrace.

Most embarrassingly for McKinsey has been the downfall of former managing director Rajat Gupta. Gupta was CEO of McKinsey between 1994 and 2003, before accepting blue-chip board appointments at Goldman Sachs, Proctor & Gamble and American Airlines. In 2012, Gupta was found guilty of three counts of securities fraud and another of conspiracy and was sentenced to two years prison and fined $5 million. Gupta had passed on confidential information to his friend, billionaire hedge fund boss Raj Rajaratnam. (Another McKinsey senior partner, Anil Kumar, was also implicated in the fraud and received two years’ probation).

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Disgraced former Enron boss Jeffrey Skilling was another former McKinsey consultant (from 1979 until 1990). Skilling was an architect of Enron’s collapse and its last CEO before being found guilty of conspiracy, insider trading, securities fraud and making false statements. Originally sentenced to 24 years in prison (and fined $45 million), Skilling has managed to have his sentence reduced, and will be eligible to attend McKinsey reunions from 2017. McKinsey itself has been closely linked to the collapse of the energy trader, with The Guardian stating in 2002 McKinsey was “the firm that built the house of Enron”.

But McKinsey hasn’t been tarnished only by criminality —  in recent years, the management halo also appears to have dimmed somewhat by the haphazard management performance of its once-lauded alumni.

Former BHP Billiton boss Marius Kloppers (who was McKinsey’s youngest partner) had what can generously be described as a disappointing reign as CEO of one of the world’s largest mining companies. Ridiculed for bizarre management practices (such as banning Post-it notes and not allowing employees to eat lunch at their desks), Kloppers inherited a diversified giant in the midst of a mining boom. But despite his good fortune, under Kloppers’ leadership, BHP bungled the acquisition of Rio Tinto (costing shareholders almost $500 million), purchased US shale oil assets at the market’s height (costing US$2.8 billion in write-offs) and undertook a poorly timed share buy-back, which cost another $2 billion.

One of Australia’s best-known McKinsey alum is businessman John Elliott. The former head of Elders IXL (which in the 1980s was Australia’s second-largest company by revenue), Elliott’s fall from grace was telling. Forced out of Elders after a failed management buy-out and billions of dollars of losses, Elliott was later charged with fraud by the National Crime Authority (charges were later dropped). Elliott then sued the NCA for defamation, was charged with insolvent trading and faced the ignominy of personal bankruptcy.

Another well-known McKinsey consultant was Fred Hilmer, who headed McKinsey’s Australian operation for nine years before being appointed CEO of Fairfax. Under his care Fairfax completely missed the threat of pure-play competitors (in the form of Seek, and Hilmer also led Fairfax into an overpriced acquisition in New Zealand while being paid tens of millions of dollars for the privilege. But perhaps the last word should go to James Packer — who, when Hilmer famously told him in 2005 he was glad he “got out [of Fairfax] at the right time”, noted: “The damage had been done by the time you got out … f-ck off.”

And then there’s former LookSmart founder and politician Evan Thornley. At one stage Thornley was a billionaire, with the share price of Looksmart at more than $72. However, the one-time market darling slumped to only 14 cents. Fortunately for Thornley, he managed to sell upwards of US$30 million in LookSmart stock shortly before its collapse. A few years later, Thornley popped up as CEO of electric car battery company Better Place. Better Place’s business model was questioned by Crikey at the time — with some justification. In May this year, Better Place filed for bankruptcy, having burned through almost $800 million in investor monies.

*Adam Schwab is the founder of AussieCommerce and author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed

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Peter Fray
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