On Saturday (25th November 2000), I dress up in my best suit (only suit, really), and find my way to the Green Park station for an interview with the Boston Consulting Group. Of course, being terribly conservative, I arrived an hour early, so it was time to walk around Green Park and have a look at the Buckingham Palace, while singing “I have confidence…” from Sound of Music. The walk did lift my spirits a bit. There was this tiny poodle that was busy licking a bulldog. The bulldog didn’t seem to mind, though it was large enough to eat up the poodle. Then the poodle’s owners picked it up, and walked away. The poodle was reluctant though. It just hadn’t finished licking the bulldog. After about 5 minutes, the bulldog (and owner), were about half-a-kilometer away, when the poodle was finally let down. Being the determined creature that it was, it ran ALL the way to the bulldog, and proceeded to lick. The bulldog, right through, was wearing a puzzled expression on its face, as if to say, “Are you sure you don’t want me to smack this little white fluff?”
At 10:15AM, I walked in to the BCG reception, and was led to the cafeteria. I was only carrying an umbrella (which I left at the reception), and some sheets of paper. There were to be 2 case interviews, each for 45 minutes. I was told that I’d be interviewed by Danai and Kim Wee. Danai (who’s from Bangkok) came along, and took me to a conference room. The interview begins.
Danai: “Hi Anand. Let me tell you a bit about how this interview is structured. We’ll begin by discussing your resume a bit. Then we’ll move on to a case, and finally, you can ask me any questions that you want. The reason we do a case interview is to test the candidate on 3 things: their enthusiasm for problem solving, their analytical skills, and communication ability. Let me begin by introducing myself. (Introduces himself in detail). Could you tell me a bit about yourself?”
Me: “Uh, sure. I studied at IITM. Nice place. Then I worked at IBM. Nice place too. Then I went to IIMB. Yet another nice place. Now I’m at LBS. Pretty nice. Uh…” At this point, I completely ran out of things to say. I mean, I’d been training for this and all that. But at the point, your mind just goes blank. So I said, “My hobbies include…” — and couldn’t think of a single hobby. My resume lists several, but the first thing that came to my mind was one that was NOT on it: “Acting.”
Danai latches on to this. “Wow, that’s interesting. So what would you like to be? Director? Actor?”
“Oh, acting itself. Writing the script too. One of my dreams is to be a film hero. ” I actually said that. It had gotten to the point where I was desperate and willing to blabber anything to recover. “I like it because it involves a lot of communication and I’m good at communication.”
Danai neatly caught on. “Yeah, there’s a lot of communicating that you’ll have to do in consulting as well. Good. Tell me about (some point on my resume).” Then we discussed my resume a bit. Then we got to the case interview. Right through, Danai was taking notes on what I was saying — in fact, he wrote nearly 3-4 pages of what I said, as opposed to me who scribbled in half a sheet.
“I’m going to give you a cement company case, because I’ve worked in the cement industry.” Fine by me. “Our client is a global cement manufacturer, who operates in North America, Europe and Latin America. They buy some of their cement from other companies, and produce the rest. They are evaluating entry into Asia. Could you help them?”
Me: First, I’d like to know more about the company. Why are they buying cement from others?
Danai: They’re not all that good at manufacturing. I mean, they’re pretty good, but nothing extraordinary. Their main strength lies in marketing and logistics. They only have 50% of the capacity of their sales.
Me: OK. Why do they want to expand to Asia?
Danai: Why do you think?
Me: Several possibilities. Maybe they want growth, which they don’t have right now. Maybe there’s a one-off opportunity in Asia right now. Maybe there’s tremendous growth in Asia and they don’t want to miss out on it.
Danai: What could a one-off opportunity be, for example?
Me: Deregulation is a classic. Another is just a first mover advantage. Hmm… that’s all I can think of.
Danai: You’re quite right about all three. Their growth is slow. There is a window of opportunity in terms of regulation, and the company believes there is lot of potential in Asia. Let us take Thailand as a representative market and work on it, because I have worked there, and can give you answers to your questions. How should our client enter the Thailand market?
Me: Well, this is what I’m going to look at: the market in Thailand, the competitors in Thailand, the resources of the company (people, money and machines), and the regulatory environment (repatriation, licenses, etc). What can you tell me about these?
Danai: Let us assume that the company has the requisite resources, though that is a good point. The regulatory environment is also friendly and the clearances are easy. The market is dominated by 3 groups of buyers — government contractors (40% revenue), private contractors (30%) revenue, and a network of retail shops. There are a few large players in the market, the top 3 taking up 70% of the market.
Me: What are the parameters on the basis of which customers base their decision to buy?
Danai: It’s as follows (in decreasing order of preference)
Government contractors: Price, reliability of supply, relationship
Private contractors: Price, reliability of supply, brand name
Retailers: Brand name, reliability of supply, price
Me: OK, looks like price and reliability are pretty important. What is the competition like? Is it stiff? Are there price wars?
Danai: What causes price wars?
Me: Well… is there excess inventory?
Danai: Precisely. There’s a lot of excess inventory, and that has resulted in a price war.
Me: Are these companies inefficient?
Danai: In manufacturing? No. The whole world is pretty much the same in terms of efficiency. They are not that good in marketing and logistics though. But this constitutes only 10% of the costs.
Me: Right. The way it looks now, it seems crazy to enter a market that’s got high inventory and price wars. I mean, even if you cut the logistics cost by 50%, it’s still just a 5% reduction in a market that goes by price. No way. Looks very unattractive. But let’s not dismiss it. How about a joint venture?
Danai: Why would a company do a JV?
Me: We’ve got the marketing power. We’ve got the logistics capability. We can partner. We should just pick a company that’s going almost bankrupt, and tell them to sign up.
Danai: Would that suffice? What would they want from us?
Me: Well… access to international markets, I guess. So we can ship the excess inventory to neighbouring countries using our superior logistics.
Danai: Good. How would you go about such an exercise?
Me: (I explain how to pick a company, how to negotiate the contract, and so on.)
Danai: Fine. Do you have any questions for me?
Me: I want to teach part time. Can I do that? (Yes). Is it true that consultants are only rubber stamps of the CEOs? (No. Otherwise, we would’ve lost our reputation.) What does your day look like? (Go to office, have meetings with clients, have meetings with team, solve problems, travel a lot).
By then, it was time to meet Kim Wee, who was in the next room. The previous night I’d run through their website, and had found out a bit about Kim Wee, which I remembered. That kind of gave me some confidence, and I thought of a nice opening line like, “You look much better than in your photograph” or something like that. But when she started off, I realized I had no chance of getting a word in.
She began with, “Hello Anand. Nice to meet you. This will be the same format as Danai’s interview. I’ll quiz you on you resume, then we’ll do a case. Then you can ask me questions. Can you tell me about your experience at Lehman Brothers?”
This entire speech took 3 seconds or so. At least, that’s what it seemed like. Completely expressionless, and ununderstandably fast. My response was very coherent, though.
“Sorry?” (This was my most frequent phrase through the interview, followed by, “Huh?”)
“Can you tell me about your experience at Lehman Brothers?”
The meaning was obvious. So I said, “I never had a choice. The tyrannical placement rules at IIMB don’t give me any choice at all. So I was tied in chains and forcibly shipped to Tokyo for slave labour. I didn’t eat or sleep. Of course, I like that sort of a thing — even if you slave-drive me, I’ll be happy. But I want to have an influence on the world, and make it a better place to live in, which I can’t do from a bank. So I’ve decided to be the knight in shining armour (OK, consultant), and…”
She cuts me off with a monotonous, but quickfire, “What’ll you do in the future?”
Me: I’ll become a freelance consultant.
Me: That way, I can say no to a client if I want to, and still solve problems, which is what I like doing. Besides, there’s a visiting Prof at IIMB who’s doing that, and I’m kind-of using him as a …
Kim: What challenges will you face as a consultant?
Kim: What challenges will you face as a consultant?
Me: (a few ‘huh’s later) I hate telling CEOs what they want to hear. If they’ve made up their mind, I’ll tell them to shove it and walk away. In fact, I …
Kim: What is your most memorable accomplishment?
I was lost again. My prepared answer was the IBM India home page. But NOTHING came to my mind. After a few blank seconds, I figured I had to say something. So I said, “I shared reports at IIMB.” She stared, and I figured I had to elaborate. “I wrote great and wonderful reports. The Gods praised them, and ordered me to be fruitful and share. So I did. Then everybody started sharing.” (I was completely out of my senses by this time) “So now, there is a HUGE library of reports at IIMB. It’s going to be extended to all IIMs. Maybe all universities in the world. And it’s ALL my work. I’m terribly proud of it, etc. etc.” (OK, I didn’t say all that, but I came close.)
Kim, for the first time, not interrupting, and speaking relatively slowly, “There was a problem at NTU with this. The professors stole the reports and passed them as their own.”
Brilliant. All I could come up with was, “Thanks for pointing that out. I hadn’t considered that. I’ll let the students at IIMB know of this danger.”
Then we moved on to the case. “Our client is a food processor. One of their products is Cool Wave (or something like that). It’s a non-dessert cream topping, with 40% of the market share. They have excess capacity. Though the industry is growing at 6%, the sales of Cool Wave is flat. You have to find out why and give recommendations. Then you have to move on to other products.”
The interview went on for a gruelling half-hour. I can recall the details, but it’s too painful for that. Most of the time, I kept asking questions to which the answer was, “We don’t have that information right now. Maybe it could be this. Maybe it could be that.” Then we’d agree on something. After 5 minutes, I’d say something, and she’d come back with, “But how can you say that?”
“Because we agreed on this 5 minutes ago.”
“Well, we don’t have that information. Maybe it could be this. Maybe it could be that.”
Finally, I did manage to piece together that the dominant competitors were pricing 15% lower, and the rest (fragmented) were pricing it 30% lower. The lower-income group was now able to afford the product. So the market was growing at the bottom, and since Cool Wave was a premium brand, they couldn’t capture that market share.
Me: One possibility is to reduce the price of Cool Wave. But that’s a bad idea (I give reasons). Another is to introduce another brand at the low end.
Kim: Anything else?
Me: (Struggle for 2 minutes. Then…) No idea.
Kim: Well, they could just sell the capacity to Wal-Mart or somebody, who could make their own-brand of the topping and sell it at the low-end.
Then I caught on to this idea, and began giving recommendations on how to do it and stuff like that. I was into my conclusion, “So they should ensure that the contract with Walmart does not appear hostile to their other retail customers…”
Kim: OK. Case is over. Do you have any questions for me?
Me: Sorry? The case is over?
Kim: Yes. Any questions?
Me: About the case?
Kim: No. Case is over. Any questions?
Me: (After about 10 seconds) Yeah. What is work like at BCG?
I don’t remember the answers. I don’t think I even heard them. They were too fast for me. Anyway, she ran me out of the building, and, as I picked up my umbrella from the reception, said that she’d let me know by Sunday evening if I got through.
I made my way to LBS, wondering if my chances were even 50-50.
Anyway, I got through to the second round, to be interviewed by Marcus and Joon. Marcus asked me, quite casually, “This isn’t a case, really. It’s something I’ve been asking a lot of people and haven’t found a satisfactory answer to. Why is it that hotels charge you when you book a room and don’t turn up, but rental car companies don’t charge you if you book a car and don’t turn up?”
To cut a long story short, I really thought Marcus (who was a VP) was just casually interacting. So I just had a casual conversation with him, exploring some possibilites. I wasn’t getting anywhere, but I didn’t worry. I thought the point was to test how cool I was under uncertainty. Turned out to be a complete mistake. Anyway, after half an hour of pleasant conversation, Joon came over.
Joon said, “There’s an airline company that ships freight. It has passenger planes as well as freight planes, and uses both to ship. They have been losing money recently. Why do you think this is so?”
This proved as straight-forward case, and was over in 15 minutes or so. In fact, Joon volunteered most of the information himself. I was so thrilled that I left my umbrella in the office and walked off in the rain.
A couple of days later, Joon calls up from Kuala Lampur. “Hello Anand, this is Joon from BCG.”
My heart starts thumping. Is it a yes? Is it a no?
“We were very happy with your resume and your qualifications. However, we are very sorry to say that we are unable to take your application forward at this point.”
It’s a long distance phone call, so he had to pause for my response. Which was something like “(croak) Of course.”
“We are extremely sorry, but hope you had a good experience through the interviews.”
“(cough) Of course.” I was brain-dead by the time anyway.
“Would you like some feedback about your performance?”
“(glug) Yes, of course.”
“We felt that you did not have the analytical skills. When Marcus and I discussed, we felt that your interview did not have enough structure.”
By this time, I’d found my voice, so I managed to mutter something like, “Thank you very much, Mr. Ooi, I’m sure the feedback will be very useful. It was a pleasure interviewing with you. Bye.”
So there it is. Lack of structure. I’ve been told that before, of course. Got to work on it…