Doing powers consulting as much as thinking

Walk into the new offices of A.T. Kearney in London and see, writ large on the wall, a quote from the firm’s founder. “Our success as consultants will depend on the essential rightness of the advice we give and our capacity for convincing those in authority that it is good.” Essential rightness: In an industry awash with buzzwords, it’s a phrase that shouts.

Andrew Thomas Kearney was an engineer. He applied what he’d learned about making machines and structures work to organisations, so it seems fitting to find that the firm he founded is pushing the boundaries of what it means to be a consultant.

“Energy transition will be one of the biggest shifts in the power industry in a generation, and everyone is looking at battery storage right now,” says Tom Harper, Head of Utilities in the London office. He’s not talking Duracell bunnies here, but the opportunities that stem from being able to charge and discharge into the grid the huge numbers of large-scale batteries that will come with the shift, among others, to electric cars. The problem, though, is that all those cars (and their batteries) are owned by different people, all behaving differently. So, how do you go about networking them together? “As advisors,” answers Harper, “we could produce slides on storage requirements, growth and flexibility. We could give clients all the graphs in the world. But if you’re an investor who’s putting a large amount of money to work, then you need to speak to people who can make it happen. It’s really tough to make this stuff fly. When you think about what organisations will have to do in order to take advantage of the opportunities, you quickly realise that the skills traditionally on offer from advisory firms aren’t always enough. We need to demonstrate that we really understand the technology, and that means working with governments, research organisations, leading universities, and think-tanks. That, in turn, means that you’re operating at the forefront of the market. You’ve also got to have hands-on experience of what works: You can’t just say, ‘we think this will be big in the future.’”

That’s what Harper and his team have been doing for the last three years, working mainly with the UK government, Innovate UK and the European Space Agency, plus major industry players. They initially focused on the applications of energy storage—how that’s likely to drive new business models, for example—and they’re just finishing the largest community storage project in Europe, based on a 450-home development near Nottingham, right in the heart of England: A massive battery, capable of trading any imbalance in the amount of energy it produces real time in the market. “I think the project is unique—and I use that word sparingly,” says Harper. “We have patents pending on the way you aggregate and trade this source of energy. We can have a real impact on the shift from combustion to electric car engines.”

But the arrangement also needs to work commercially for A.T. Kearney. One of the reasons why environmental consulting didn’t take off in the early 2000s, despite growing concern about the potential impact of scarce resources, was that the consulting projects firms won were too small, especially when placed against IT-driven mega-deals. The global financial crisis didn’t help, either.

While Harper only gets involved in a small number of consulting projects, they’re large, high-profile ones. His team’s work also helps demonstrate the firm’s capabilities in a very tangible way: “On those big projects, when you can actually walk in and sit with a CEO and discuss what’s happening in the market, it can have a huge impact,” he says. “It’s a really different type of experience for clients. That means making sure that what we do is part of a broader ambition, which is to show what consultants can do, not just what they can think.”