Podcast

Episode: 17 |
David Burnie:
Building a Boutique Firm:
Episode
17

HOW TO THRIVE AS AN
INDEPENDENT PROFESSIONAL

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David Burnie

Building a Boutique Firm

Show Notes

David Burnie is a McKinsey alum and the founder of The Burnie Group, a boutique consulting firm based in Toronto. We discuss how we started as an independent professional and then proceeded to build a firm and how he has partnered with software firms to offer robotic automation. You can sign up for his firm’s newsletter and read more about The Burnie Group at www.burniegroup.com

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Will Bachman: Hey there podcast listeners. Welcome to Unleashed. The show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top tier independent management consultants. I’m your host Will Bachman.

David Burnie: I truly believe that if you do great work, you build great relationships that everything else will follow.

Will Bachman: Today’s guest is David Burnie, the founder of the Burnie Group. A boutique consulting firm based in Toronto. David is a McKinsey alum. He started out as an independent consultant and then took the leap of building a firm which now has about 25 members. In this show, we talk about that journey of going from being an independent to starting a boutique firm and growing it. We also talk about how he has partnered with software providers to build unique capabilities in areas like robotic automation and blockchain technology.

You can find more about the Burnie group online at burnie group.com. That’s B-U-R-N-I-Egroup.com. I learned a ton from this conversation, and I hope you enjoy it. So Dave, thank you so much for being on the show today. I’m really psyched to speak with you.

David Burnie: Great. Thanks for inviting me Will.

Will Bachman: So Dave, you’ve done something that is a step beyond what a lot of independent consultants do in terms of really moving beyond independent practice to building a firm. Wondered if you could maybe just give us a little snapshot on your background and then talk about how you set up your firm and how it’s grown?

David Burnie: Sure. Thanks. Will. Where we are today, the Burnie Group is a small boutique consulting firm. We have approximately 20 full-time team members as well as we leverage the network of independent consultants specifically Umbrex quite a bit to help deliver on consulting projects.

So, let me tell you a little bit about maybe my background and how we got to where we are today. I was at McKinsey and Company from 2003 till 2011. I left the firm in 2011 to found the Burnie Group. I started off as many people are working today as an independent, but I always had the aspiration to build something and to have my own firm. I always thought when I was working at McKinsey, that there was a better way to do things in two senses.

One, when we’re delivering on a project, the traditional model of having partners who have deep expertise, who sell the projects, but then leave the team to execute off course, with their insight, I thought it was one that can be improved upon. And if we leverage an organization like Umbrex, we can bring independent consultants together who have really deep industry experience. Who have solved problems before that the client is trying to solve. We can, therefore have a really experienced high quality team at a fraction of the price of what some of the top tier firms would charge.

Secondarily, I felt that there was an opportunity to really leverage technology and whereas in some of the engagements I hadn’t done before, I was building out Excel models to help organizations with workforce management. I now have the flexibility to build relationships with technology partners so that the Burnie group can bring to the table specific software that we can embed right within our consulting.

We have in our technology operations practice number of different solutions ranging from workforce management to robotic process automation to blockchain. Where we’re working together with other partners to bring in full solution of consulting and technology.

That’s really what the Burnie Group stands for today. really experienced teams combined with consulting that leverages technology. In terms of the journey and how I got there, I started, I thinking like everyone just doing my own consulting projects. When I was at McKinsey, I had a number of relationships with my colleagues at McKinsey. One of my best sources of projects was actually been the McKinsey network. One of my former colleagues said, “Hey, Dave, it would be great if I could leverage your skills and capabilities with the organization I’m at right now.”

So, we worked together, and my first project was actually playing a bit of a partner role helping his team, which was an operational team, and I played more of the guidance and mentorship of that team where they executed on a project. Over time, I then started to work and I had people reaching out and saying, “I’d love to leverage some of your operations expertise, and can you actually bring a team of people together?”

Early in Burnie Group days, I was an army of one, that’s where I would leverage my network. I would go out and I would build teams and I would say, “Yeah, sure, we can come to the table.” And it can be a team of myself plus two, three other consultants who can execute on this project.

That’s really how I got things started in terms of bringing teams of people to the table versus just myself. Over time, I soon recognized that it’s helpful to build relationships with people and work together on a regular basis. Some of those independent consultants that I had worked with before we agreed to say, “Hey, let’s partner and let’s start to do more work together, more business development together.”

That’s where the Burnie Group actually started to become a group. It started probably more with bringing on more senior level partners to work together and to sell projects and to execute and deliver. Over time, as we’ve been doing that, we’ve recognized that sometimes you need different skill sets within a team, including the traditional business analyst or associate role. That’s where we started to get into bringing on people to the team full-time where we now have a combination of full time resources, who can execute on projects as well as the ability to go out and leverage the network to pull together a really good experienced team. Now, with some of the more junior capabilities that we require to do some of the analysis and day to day work.

That’s been the evolution of the Burnie group. As I mentioned, it went all the way from starting just myself through to now where we’ve got a really strong network of both full time staff members and colleagues like those at Umbrex who I can reach out to and bring onto projects.

Will Bachman: David, that’s awesome, to have done what you’ve built. Tell me a little bit about how you made that decision and how can other folks think about making the decision to go beyond the state of using some folks as subcontractors to actually hiring employees? A lot of people are maybe reluctant or a little scared to make that jump. What do you need to have in place either financially or terms of volume of work? It’s a little bit of a chicken egg problem. So, how did you think about that? And what how did you go about making that decision?

David Burnie: I think it depends a little bit on the type of work that you plan on doing. If you have a very specific area of expertise, then you can actually start to build teams around that if you’re going to be more generalist, then it’s a little bit more difficult to build a specific team that will be executing. The best way for me to describe it is just to tell you how things work at the Burnie Group, because we have one practice or strategy practice, which really leverages the independent consultant model where we’re bringing in custom built teams for all of the client work that we do. Then we have a technology and operations practice which is where we have most of our full time staff members.

Let me describe the two. On the strategy side, because the strategy practice is really focused on delivering a non-specific solution following more of an approach, it’s more difficult to have full-time team members. So, if we’re doing a strategy project for a team, as we’ve done in say, healthcare and technology, it’s going to be a different team that is required versus if we’re doing a project in retail operations.

That’s where we’ve really leveraged the independent consulting model. Now, we have a second practice area which we call technology in operations, where we’re building very specific expertise and approaches to getting things done. One example of that would be our Operations Excellence Program. We’ve actually built the program which is 12 weeks in length, which has a very specific training regimen that we take clients through which leverage with technology.

So, we’ve got a workforce management platform that we bring to the table that for anyone who’s working in the back office or operational areas, it allows us to track what people are doing throughout the course of the day, which then allows us to move into scheduling and forecasting which the technology assistant doing. Then we start to leverage things such as with all of that information that’s embedded in the software and the technology, we can start to look at KPIs and metrics. We bring things to the table, such as daily huddles, communication boards, and that becomes a program which we’ve been able to leverage and roll out to a number of different clients.

In that case, it’s a repeatable process, and it makes sense to have people on who are full-time. I think it comes down a little bit to what’s the type of problem you’re trying to solve. Do you need to have really deep expertise in a given industry, and are you going to be focused in that particular industry, or do you need deep expertise in solving a certain type of problem?

If you’re going to have that specialization and area of focus, then you can definitely think about bringing on a full-time team. If you’re going to be more generalist in nature, then it becomes a little bit more difficult. But that’s fine. That’s where you can leverage more of the network model where you’re bringing together independent consultants who can solve that specific problem.

Will Bachman: I’m fascinated by this practice that you developed about building technology solutions or bringing in some partner software type solutions. It’s not something that I did when I was at McKinsey, but as an independent, you have the freedom to explore things like that. Could you talk a little bit more about how that works? Do you have agreements with big software companies or have you built it yourself or have developers or how might independent consultants do something along those lines?

David Burnie: The best way to answer, let me give you an example. One of the practice areas at Burnie Group is around robotic process automation and just automation in general. About four or five years ago, through a lot of our operations work, we have learned about and investigated this new technology called robotic process automation. Essentially, what allows you to do is whenever you have people who are working across multiple systems to automate the work that they do. When you have a standardized process or when people are doing things in a fashion that can be replicated.

We recognized this early and we said it would be great for us not only to be able to consult to clients and tell them that this is a great technology, but also to be able to actually deliver that technology. It’s almost like doing a consulting project to yourself. We looked at the market, we tried to understand who are the best players, what was the best technology, and we actually decided to partner with not one, but a number of the robotic process automation technologies they’re out in the market today.

That involve reaching out to them. We actually have become official distributors of a number of these technology firms. Now when we go to clients, we can provide the consulting services around robotic process automation, but also we can deliver the actual solution to them. So, we’ve gotten into building teams of developers who can actually build the code to execute against a robotic process automation project, and have become a leader in the field.

We are one of the first to offer this type of technology in North America, and we’re one of the leaders in the area today. I think what it takes is identifying if there’s a certain type of solution or technology that works really well with the type of work that you’re doing, then reaching out to that software vendor and saying, how can we work together? What are the options for us to really leverage your technology? Many of the vendors, software providers that are out there today, they love it when they’ve got smart people who can be out and essentially selling their software and so it’s a very nice fit.

Will Bachman: That’s cool. A number questions on that. One is, I hear in robotic process automation, I’m thinking of the videos that you see of a car automotive plant or something, but is that the kind you’re talking about? Give me an example of the robotic process automation that you’re involved in?

David Burnie: Sure that’s immediately what people jump to, is they’re thinking of the actual robot. That these are actually software robots. So, it is software that you upload into a computer. To give you an example, we work a lot in financial services and telecommunications. So, imagine a very simple application, let’s say that there was someone who made an application to a bank and that’s entered in possibly through optical character recognition. But then you need to take that information and enter into a number of different systems. Perhaps that person was applying for a mortgage, you need to take that information, apply it against the banking system, et cetera, et cetera.

Traditionally, what will happen is you would have people who … They actually have a term for this called the swivel chair process. Where they actually copy the fields from one system and then swivel in their chair and paste it into another system. The software what it would do is it acts actually like a person who’s leveraging the software or the technology and actually follows that process. You can model the process from start to finish, they can copy, they can paste.

It’s a little bit like an Excel macro on steroids where you can program it to do pretty much anything across any type of system, whether it’s internet, whether it’s green screen technology. It allows you to really automate the step by step process.

Will Bachman: That’s awesome. I also wanted to ask you a little bit about the blockchain that you mentioned earlier. I know that it has something to do with you know the cryptocurrency stuff but how are you using the blockchain technology?

David Burnie: Blockchain is I feel today where robotic process automation was perhaps three or four years ago. Everyone now has heard about it. Bitcoin has been a popular use of the blockchain technology and we could probably have a whole podcast just on blockchain itself. It’s very exciting stuff. But essentially what it is, it’s a ledger system that really is fully secure, they can’t be hacked, and which allows organizations to take away the insertion of a third party to manage track that transactions.

So, today if you and I want to do a transaction there is a third party called the bank that’s in between us to make sure or perhaps it’s PayPal. But the function of that third party is essentially to ensure that the transaction is actually occurring. With blockchain and the ledger system you’re able to actually in a secure way really ensure and track that transactions are happening and it allows you to eliminate that third party.

It opens up all sorts of different solutions, having your own personal health record and be having that accessible to everyone in the healthcare system. In a whole broad set of applications, it really helps for everyone to ensure that any transaction that has happened, be that financial or you going to pay your health check is secure and can be managed effectively.

Will Bachman: Can you give us any examples of projects where you’ve done something related to blockchain? Is this at the healthcare record or anything else?

David Burnie: Again, this is early days and this is emerging technology. But what we’re doing is working especially with financial institutions and healthcare is a very big application for this as well. We’re working with them. Today. It’s at more of a consulting strategic perspective to identify how blockchain technology can be leveraged and used. Where we do see this going is that we will build the resources and capabilities to actually help them execute.

We’re still at that strategy level where we can help lay out how will the process look, how you leverage the technology, tomorrow, we’ll be able to actually help them execute.

Will Bachman: For these types of projects where you’ve built a real specific capability, it’s a little bit different than some people’s firms where they’re maybe a little bit more of a generalist. When you’ve built some kind of capability like that you need to go out and make the specific customers aware of it that could use it. Could you talk a little bit about your client development process and how you find new clients for the Burnie group?

David Burnie: I think that there’s a few different methods that we use. The primary one and the one that is most effective is leveraging your direct network or referrals. My biggest weapon is a cup of coffee. Going out, meeting with people, having a cup of coffee and talking about what their biggest problems are, what are the things that are keeping them awake at night. Usually, that will then lead into discussion about how we can help them.

Secondarily, referrals are a very big source of business. When we do projects with clients, we’ll go back to them and say, “Hey, are there others that you know who are facing similar challenges where we can go and we can help? If you’ve done a good job, then frequently they will be happy to reach out and connect these to others who are facing similar problems or trying to solve similar issues. To me, those are two of the most effective means of building both my network and finding business.

Will Bachman: In terms of kind of visibility raising, have you found it makes sense for you to invest time in either writing or speaking or anything like that? Or is it been mainly the face to face coffees that have you found most effective?

David Burnie: Well, there’s a few areas where we’ve invested in terms of visibility. One is on our website, and in sharing information with others. We have a monthly newsletter which we distribute to all of our former clients. Our website is an area where we’ve invested a lot of time and energy. It won’t necessarily lead you to a new customer. But I can tell you pretty much 100% of the time the minute you meet someone or if you’re working with someone to finalize a project, they and everyone who’s in on that decision are going to your website to see what you stand for and what you’re all about.

So, it’s something that is important and we’ve heard from our clients that, oh yeah, we were thinking about the project. We went to your website to see what you are all about. That’s an important part of your overall business that you need to build out. In terms of visibility, the monthly newsletter is one where I’ve actually brought on someone, a marketing manager to help execute on that. It’s a way to be top of mind with all of our clients. Every month we send out information that’s hopefully relevant to them. New thoughts on innovation things that we’re seeing out in the market. That’s a way to always be top of mind.

Speaking engagements are something that we’re looking into. We would like to do more of them. It’s just finding the right ones. Then white papers and publications are another area where we would love to do more. It’s just, where do you find time in the day, but that would be an area that we have seen value in those who builds your credibility. It’s an area where we’d like to invest more time and energy.

Will Bachman: Could you talk a bit about how you manage your own time and the roles of the senior folks at your firm? Are the other senior folks out generating business or is it just you and how do you split your time between developing new projects and helping execute the ones that your firm is doing?

David Burnie: I think the way I spend my time has changed over the course of the past six years. When I first started, when I was doing everything from selling to executing, it’s tough. It’s tough when you’re executing on a project to be doing that business development. So, the time shifting where you would be trying to think about the next project while you’re doing a project, but frequently, there would be a break or a gap between when you finished one and when you started the next.

As I start to build up a team, we can then start to separate rules. And I can spend more and more of my time on building the Burnie Group which a lot of times going on people now and on client and business development. If you find people who you can really trust who are great at execution, then that frees you up to be thinking about what’s happening three months from now or six months from now.

When I was in McKenzie, I never really understood, or I didn’t really comprehend the whole ways that the roles were defined. I always grew frustrated when I was an associate and a director would come in, spend half a day with the team, provide all of their red marks and feedback, and then, you know, you’d see them a week or two later. I always felt like, “Wow, we’re the ones who are doing all the work.” It’s not until you’re actually doing the work yourself where you realize, “Wow, there’s all of the different elements of executing and selling projects, you really do need to be thinking three to six months away if you really are going to start to build a firm.

Will Bachman: So, now you’re that guy here. Now you’re the guy [inaudible 00:25:46]

David Burnie: I’m that guy. It’s like, “What are they doing here? Why is he here, he doesn’t anything what’s going on. It’s actually funny to be in that role now. So yes, there are definitely times where I show up and I’m clueless as to what the team is doing. And I’ll just sit and observe and be like, “Okay, I’m glad you guys have everything under control, and I’ll see you soon.”

Will Bachman: You have that view of three to six months out about thinking, not just what you’re doing today, but it sounds like you’re always thinking about what do the clients need sort of three, six months from now.

David Burnie: Yeah, that’s right. As in the case of blockchain or even thinking further than that, the definition of what we’re going to do in blockchain is still being crafted. What I’m certain is that two to three years from now, it’s going to be huge, but we don’t exactly know what that looks like yet today. So, we’re definitely thinking far ahead.

Will Bachman: Yeah. Dave, you’ve told me before that one of your favorite books is by one of my favorite authors. David Meister. You mentioned managing the professional services firm. Could you talk a little bit about what that book meant to you and some of the lessons that you’ve used in implementing in your own practice?

David Burnie: Yeah, managing the professional service firm was recommended to me by a friend who started his own consulting business. It was just really practical advice that helps me think about things such as, how do I set my day rate? How should I think about negotiating with clients? How should I think about client service and delivery?

It’s a book that I would recommend, especially as people are starting out or if you’re looking to transition from being just an independent consultant into thinking a bit some projects which are maybe a little bit larger. It has very good practical advice about how to manage a services firm like a like a consulting firm, and that has been invaluable for me as I built he Burnie Group.

Will Bachman: How is that proposal process different? You’ve done both now. You were single, single, independent now you’ve built a firm, how is the whole proposal process different in those two phases.

David Burnie: I haven’t found the proposal process to be excessively different. It’s just a matter of scale. When I was independent, I would still put together a statement of work, define what it is I was going to deliver, define a price for those services and define what the outcomes would be and what the client would receive and really define the benefits.

Now that we’re going to the table and trying to pitch larger projects, it’s very similar. It just happens to be that there’s more people who are helping to deliver and the output of that project is in terms of the benefits and the magnitude of value is larger. The core elements of what should be included in the proposal are still very much the same.

Will Bachman: Okay, all right. Could you walk us through that one project that the Burnie Group has done and maybe, you can share any tips or tricks on the project execution that you think other independent professionals could make use of?

David Burnie: Sure. I’ll tell you about a project that involved us working with a telehealth company down in the United States. that grind is I had done work in Canada and one of the members of the board, it was a growth strategy. And one of the members who sat on the board saw our final recommendations and remember the work we had done. About  two years later, he gave me a call and said, “Hey, I’m with a private equity firm, and we have a portfolio company that needs some help. Saw the great work that you did before, can you come and help us [inaudible 00:29:57] the company happens to be in the healthcare and technology space.

I of course said, “Yes, can definitely help you. Hung up the phone and then thought, wow, I know nothing about U.S healthcare, and I know very little about technology, how am I going to do this. And so this is where the strength of the Umbrex organization came through. I knew that immediately I had to get some expertise on to my team. I was quite comfortable with the approach that we would take to executing the project itself and the process around building a good strategy. So, we also needed expertise.

I reached out to the Umbrex network and actually found a number of expert people within the Umbrex community who had worked both in healthcare and technology. Together we worked on putting together a proposal together and we went back to my client and we pitched to the Umbrex community members; Mary, Kate and Astrid were really key to winning the proposal. They had really extensive U.S healthcare experience. They both knew technology and they both were very experienced in delivering on a strategy projects.

Based on that, went back, client loved the proposal, we actually had a team of five people to be brought down and worked on the project. It was a four month project in total that span the initial diagnostic of what they were doing today. Came up with solution design where based on our analysis, we worked with them to develop their strategy.

Garrett focused on roadmap design where we set to actually execute on the strategy. Here is the roadmap that you will follow. Overall, it was a great example where through the strength of the Umbrex network, we could bring really senior an experienced team members to the table, who knew the industry, who knew the problem, solved similar problems before and we brought great value to that client.

Will Bachman: That’s a really cool story about how being part of a community and getting to know other peer practitioners we can build a more powerful team. That’s ta cool case example.

David Burnie: Yeah, I couldn’t have done it without that community. I’ve had a number of different projects where because through Umbrex, I’m able to reach out and find people with that expertise. It’s been invaluable to me.

Will Bachman: Dave, where do you see the Burnie group going? What’s your vision for sort of five, 10 years from now?

David Burnie: That’s a good question. I frequently get asked that especially by candidates who are looking to come into the Burnie Group and. I don’t have a set … Many people are very focused on targets and metrics. I haven’t said we need to be this big by this many years from now. The important thing for me is that we’re having fun, that we’re doing work and we really enjoy. That we’re really delivering value to clients.

That at the end of the day, I go home to my family, I’m able to spend time with Mandy, my wife and my kids; Adele, Zach and Hayden. Those are the important things to me. I truly believe that if you do great work, you build great relationships that everything else will follow in terms of growth, in terms of revenue and profitability.

For me to focus is really around building a practice that delivers great value where we have the trust of our clients, where we’re all having fun and really enjoying the work that we do.

Will Bachman: That’s awesome. Some people think that bigger is necessarily more profitable but sounds like you’re being really thoughtful about keeping it to a size where you can be fully committed to the client work and enjoy it. How can listeners find you online?

David Burnie: To find me online, you can either go to our website www.burniegroup.com. Spelled -B-U-R-N-I-E Group, or you can email me David.burnie@burniegroup.com.

Will Bachman: Awesome. Well, Dave, this has been a really interesting discussion for me. I haven’t spoken to other folks that are doing this kind of partnership with software firms and investing the way you are in things like blockchain, which seems really a smart move. Thanks for coming on the show.

David Burnie: Well, thanks a lot. Thanks to you, I couldn’t have done a lot of what I’m doing without beyond [inaudible 00:35:25] communities. So, I really value what you’ve been doing in your leadership role at Umbrex, and think that together there’s just so much that we can do for our clients. So, I think that Umbrex has been, just a great benefit to the consulting community and for all of us who are working in the Umbrex community.

Will Bachman: All right, thanks for those kind words. I appreciate it Dave.

David Burnie: Great, thanks Will.

Will Bachman: Thanks for listening to this episode of Unleashed. The show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is sponsored by Umbrex, the world’s first global community of top tier independent management consultants. The mission of Umbrex is to create opportunities for independent management consultants to meet, share lessons learned and collaborate. I’d love to get your feedback and here any questions that you’d like to see us answer on this show. You can email me at unleashed@umbrex.com. That’s U-M-B-R-E-X.com.

If you found anything on the show helpful, it would be a real gift if you would let a friend know about the show, and take a minute to leave a review on iTunes, Google Play or Stitcher. If you subscribe, our show will get delivered to your device every Monday. Our audio engineer is Dave Nelson, our theme song was composed by Gary Negbaur, and I’m your host Will Bachman. Thanks for listening.

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