Interview: Ambitious Slalom en route to the top

by Vault Consulting Editors | March 22, 2011

  • My Vault

Recently I got the chance to speak with John Tobin of Slalom Consulting, a strategy and IT consultancy that's currently riding a mean growth streak across the United States. Last month, the firm announced that it had hired its 1,000th employee— an impressive accomplishment, considering that the Seattle-based firm didn't break ground until 2001.

Now in his ninth year as Slalom's national general manager, Tobin predicts a big future for the upstart firm with a unique approach to staffing projects. "Our goal is to be the dominant national player for a consulting company with a local model," Tobin says, referencing both Slalom's grand ambitions and its unique dedication to its consultants' work/life balance.

I spoke with Mr. Tobin regarding the firm's ambitions and the recruiting efforts that drive Slalom's growth.

Slalom has been growing at a pretty impressive rate since its founding in 2001. Is the firm going to continue to grow at the same pace?

That's our plan. We just finalized a five year strategy, taking us into 2015, projecting growth and a number of offices we plan to open—as well as some of the strategic things we're trying to do, like elevate our game from an overall consultative perspective. We do envision continually growing. As we grow the percentage of growth might go down a little bit, but we're still targeting between 38 and 40 percent growth in 2011.

Part of this year's plan is to open a New York office. Can we expect to see Slalom offices cropping up across the country?

Our plan right now has us opening five offices over the next two years, starting with New York. We need to get an East Coast presence. Our big goal is really to be the dominant national player for a consulting company with a local model. If it goes as well as it seems like it's going to, we're going to open Boston at the end of the year; in 2012 we envision opening Washington DC, Minnesota, and Houston. In part of 2012 we're also going to start to plan around opening a European office, starting in London. So London, we're targeting for 2013.

With the opening of the New York office, is that going to shift Slalom's recruiting focus to the East Coast, or will recruiters still be looking for people around the HQ in Seattle?

We're going to focus on opening New York and the other East Coast offices, but each market has its own set of goals that we're really trying to drive towards. We're recruiting across the country, frankly.

We're always recruiting! We're always networking at every single office. There are certain markets, like in Seattle, where we're still meeting and networking with a lot of people but not hiring at as fast of a clip as we have in the past. But there are other growth markets like San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta—those are all really, really taking off, we're really recruiting quite a bit there. And there are other markets that are maybe smaller at this stage, so they're about to hit a big growth spurt—like our Southern California office; our Dallas office definitely saw a huge uptick.

Today, a typical Slalom hire has maybe 10 years of experience, with either a Big Four firm or a top consultancy. Is that going to hold true as the firm continues to grow, or will recruiters start looking at some of the younger talent—kids right out of college, business school?

Our plan is to stay with the model that we have in terms of hiring experienced people.

I will say, though, that on some of the technology fronts some of the best talent is coming right out of school. We have dabbled with that, taking some computer science-focused folks, or maybe business applied computer majors out of certain schools, but we don't have any targeted campus recruiting effort. It's just something that we've dabbled with. To put that in perspective: out of 1,000 employees, we may have 5 that we've hired right out of school. It's something that we've tried—and it's worked when we have—but I think it's worked because we're very targeted with it. You can usually do it from a technology standpoint, where you have those very technical folks working on projects with other senior architects and things like that. So we've been able to make that work, but it's not part of our strategy.

It seems that Slalom fancies itself a hybrid between strategy/management and technology, with people proficient in both. Is that an accurate assessment?

Definitely. Our workforce is almost exactly 50/50 in terms of true technologists and true business process or strategy types of consultants. There aren't many companies, especially with the local model, that have the breadth that we have from a real business process perspective, a management consulting perspective, and with the really smart technical individuals.

For example, we've done a lot of different work at Microsoft, including helping them with their Kinect launch. Microsoft is a great partner for us, but we're not exclusively just doing Microsoft technology. The Kinect project really had nothing to do with technology, in fact; it was all business process and management consulting. We've really packaged up—almost from a supply chain standpoint—how they go to market with that product.

Where is Slalom finding its veteran consultants?

If you look at the people that come to us, you probably see a tendency to have more of that larger consulting company, the Big Five, Big Six type of background. I was with Ernst & Young before they got bought by Capgemini. We might get people from Accenture, Deloitte, Hitachi. Hitachi is a good example because they've had a local model for years, and they've really went away from that to go to a national model. So we found that a lot of people—although they liked Hitachi—they were worried about the national model and wanted to go somewhere that was maybe similar but kept to a local model.

We also hire a lot of people who started their career in consulting and then went into an industry job, but ultimately missed consulting. Slalom is a great fit because these consultants like our local model and bring a new perspective of what it is like to be a client and this adds even more value to our intimate relationships with our clients.

It is really a massive networking effort. We literally are just super proactive about meeting everybody in the market, whether we have a specific position for them or if we're just trying to get to know them in one way, shape or form. And through doing that, frankly, we do get a lot of interest.

Now for that local model: What sets Slalom apart? In terms of recruiting, what do people see at Slalom that they don't see elsewhere?

What the local model does is it does allow the consultants a way to work within their home and basically sleep in their own bed—but the bigger part is the intimacy of that. You're able to create real collective, intimate consulting teams. And what people love about consulting, frankly, is usually the other people that they're working for and the gratitude that they get from their clients. So what we're able to do with the local model is build up those long-term relationships both for our consultants, in their local model, as well as with their clients. And that's what people get excited about.

Also, there aren't many companies—especially with the local model—that have the breadth that we have from a real business process perspective, a management consulting perspective, and with the really smart technical individuals. It's that balance that really, really endears us to the clients, and lets us take on an entire project.

Filed Under: Consulting

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