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How McKinsey Lost Its Way in South Africa

Tuesday - 26/06/2018 20:27
When the godfather of management consulting landed its biggest contract ever in Africa, it made the worst mistake in its storied nine-decade history.
The McKinsey & Company offices in Sandton, Johannesburg’s financial center. In 2015, the consulting giant entered into a contract that turned out to be illegal.CreditGulshan Khan for The New York Times
The McKinsey & Company offices in Sandton, Johannesburg’s financial center. In 2015, the consulting giant entered into a contract that turned out to be illegal.CreditGulshan Khan for The New York Times

JOHANNESBURG — The blackouts kept coming. The state-owned power company, Eskom, was on the verge of insolvency. Maintenance was being deferred. And a major boiler exploded, threatening the national grid.

McKinsey & Company, the godfather of management consulting, thought it could help, but was not sure that it should, according to people involved in the debate. The risk was huge. Could McKinsey fix the problems? Would it get paid? Would it be tainted by South Africa’s rampant political corruption?

In late 2015, over objections from at least three influential McKinsey partners, the firm decided the risk was worth taking and signed on to what would become its biggest contract ever in Africa, with a potential value of $700 million.

It was also the biggest mistake in McKinsey’s nine-decade history.

The contract turned out to be illegal, a violation of South African contracting law, with some of the payments channeled to an associate of an Indian-born family, the Guptas, at the center of a swirling corruption scandal. Then there was the lavish size of that payout. It did not take a Harvard Business School graduate to explain why South Africans might get angry seeing a wealthy American firm cart away so much public money in a country with the worst income inequality in the world and a youth unemployment rate over 50 percent.

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