Stewart Johns is joint Managing Director of public sector specialist consulting firm Prederi. Before Prederi, he worked in public sector consulting at PwC, IBM, Tribal and Boxwood for over 16 years. Stewart talks us through setting up the company, challenges in the industry and his career to date.
What made you want to be a management consultant? How did you start off in the industry?
I qualified as a Chartered Account with Deloitte Haskins & Sells and worked in the City for Morgan Stanley and City Index and then for myself in West Cornwall with Farmers and Fishermen. I then moved to the Home Office as a management accountant which was when I started thinking about going into management consultancy. I had several options but joined Coopers & Lybrand in their public sector practice. I was only interested in doing consultancy work if it helped support and improve public sector. It shouldn’t be the case but it seemed you could do more good in improving the efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector from outside rather than in-house.
Many of the Prederi team have had experience with a large firm. What have you learnt from this experience?
The large consultancies give you the best training and experiences you can ever have. For a junior I would say it is good to learn through the big firms. However, we felt as traditional consultants, we couldn’t have full control of our decisions. Even these days the firms are dominated by private sector work. We only want to do public sector.
How was Prederi set up? What challenges did you face?
We were formed from the public sector arms of two consultancy firms who were keen to keep developing their private sector business and were finding it difficult to win profitable work in public sector. We also wanted to develop a business model based on expertise rather than consulting.
I already had experience setting up a consultancy from scratch in 2003 (Tribal TGC) but it is a lot easier to set up companies now, the main reason being initial cost is lower. The infrastructure costs are negligible because of cloud type services and the ability to work remotely.
Our aim was to own the entire business ourselves with directors and employees owning all the shares. It makes for a less stressful life as the only people who can be blamed when it goes wrong is us. The way we funded it was by not paying ourselves which is by far the most efficient way of funding a start-up. If you can do it, it’s more efficient than borrowing money from a bank or having an overdraft.
What upcoming projects is Prederi focusing on?
We are just finishing a piece of work supporting the Department of Health on modelling the cost impact of use of the NHS by migrants. In fact, the report we have written as part of this was the main item earlier last week on BBC, ITV, Sky, Radios 4 and 5.
We are doing quite a few strategic and policy modelling exercises; a lot of work in health and local government including strategy development – combining clinical, strategic and finance expertise – and programme management of large whole-system programmes. And we have just won work with the MOD to deliver financial training.
What ambitions do you have for the company?
The aim is steady growth in turns of turnover and number of staff. We don’t know where the maximum efficiency is but we reckon it could be around 50 people so we will see how it looks then.
What challenges are in front of the public sector?
There is a lack of funding to deliver the outcomes required by ministers which have not been truly understood. The size of the issue is still unclear to the general public. Huge strides could be made in providing a more efficient and effective service but I’m not sure if everyone in the public sector can see those benefits. The biggest problem for a consultant is convincing people there is a need for change.
What people struggle with is prioritisation, because everyone from local and central government to the NHS say that everything is vital. The reality is we are now in a world where we must prioritise. And until they learn how to prioritise and stop doing things that aren’t important then we can’t move on.
What problems are facing the health sector?
I would say the biggest problem in the health service is that it is made up of effectively thousands of organisations all carrying levels of autonomy and increasingly their own commercial agenda. This makes it extremely complex to achieve buy-in to a policy or strategy, or to deliver change. Add to that the recent reforms of commissioning, rising demand for services, and funding that is at best flat in real terms. It makes it both an engaging and a highly challenging sector to work in.
If you could change one thing about the consultancy industry what would it be?
It would be to put clients off thinking that they need to buy consulting teams in ‘pyramids’. Clients want the expertise that rests with more senior consultants. What they get, with a lot of firms, is a few of those senior consultants and lots of junior consultants who they don’t really need.
Tell us something about Prederi that we don’t know…
Prederi is Celtic for ‘think again’. It came from a newspaper where the headline said ‘Prederi, Mr Cameron’ and I thought what on earth does that mean? It was actually about the Pasty Tax which was examined again by the government and cancelled. We thought it was an appropriate name. We think both the consulting industry and the client actually need to take the time to think about what is really important rather than ploughing on regardless.