Among the hoops that candidates for plum consulting jobs at McKinsey & Company had to jump through in late 2006 was a bit of play acting: They were given a scenario involving a hypothetical client, “a business under siege,” and told they would be meeting with its chief executive the next day. How would they structure the conversation?
One contender stood out that year: a 24-year-old Rhodes scholar named Pete Buttigieg.
“He was the only one who put all the pieces together,” recalled Jeff Helbling, a McKinsey partner at the time who was involved in recruiting. Mr. Buttigieg soon won the other candidates over to his approach.
“He was very good at taking this ambiguous thing that he literally had no background on and making sense of it,” Mr. Helbling said. “That is rare for anyone at any level.”
The preternatural poise that got Mr. Buttigieg hired at McKinsey has helped him rise from obscurity to the top tier of the 2020 Democratic primary presidential contest.
On the way there, he ticked all the boxes. Harvard. Rhodes scholar. War veteran. Elected mayor of a midsize city before age 30.
Mr. Buttigieg sells his candidacy, in large part, on his mayoralty of South Bend, Ind., and a civic revitalization there rooted in the kind of data-driven techniques espoused by McKinsey. His nearly three years at “the firm” set him apart from many of his campaign rivals, underpinning his position as a more centrist alternative to progressive front-runners like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Yet Mr. Buttigieg’s time at the world’s most prestigious management-consulting company is one piece of his meticulously programmed biography that he mentions barely, if at all, on the campaign trail.
As Mr. Buttigieg explains it, that is not a matter of choice. For all of his efforts to run an open, accessible campaign — marked by frequent on-the-record conversations with reporters on his blue-and-yellow barnstorming bus — McKinsey is a famously secretive employer, and Mr. Buttigieg says he signed a nondisclosure agreement that keeps him from going into detail about his work there.
But as he gains ground in polls, his reticence about McKinsey is being tested, including by his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination. Senator Warren, responding last month to needling by Mr. Buttigieg that she release more than the 11 years of tax returns she already had to account for her private-sector work, retorted, “There are some candidates who want to distract from the fact that they have not released the names of their clients and have not released the names of their bundlers.”
Beyond Mr. Buttigieg’s agreement with McKinsey, this is something of an awkward moment to be associated with the consultancy, especially if you happen to be a Democratic politician in an election year shadowed by questions of corporate power and growing wealth inequality. The firm has long advocated business strategies like
- raising executive compensation,
- moving labor offshore and
- laying off workers to cut costs.
And over the last couple of years, reporting in The New York Times and other publications has revealed episodes tarnishing McKinsey’s once-sterling reputation: its work advising Purdue Pharma on how to “turbocharge” opioid sales, its consulting for authoritarian governments in places like China and Saudi Arabia, and its role in a wide-ranging corruption scandal in South Africa. (All of these came after Mr. Buttigieg left the firm.)
Just this week, ProPublica, copublishing with The Times, revealed that McKinsey consultants had recommended in 2017 that Immigration and Customs Enforcement cut its spending on food for migrants and medical care for detainees.
After a campaign event on Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Buttigieg remarked on the latest revelations. “The decision to do what was reported yesterday in The Times is disgusting,” he said. “And as somebody who left the firm a decade ago, seeing what certain people in that firm have decided to do is extremely frustrating and extremely disappointing.”
The Buttigieg campaign says he has asked to be let out of his nondisclosure agreement so he can be more forthcoming about that formative time in his life. A McKinsey spokesman said Mr. Buttigieg “worked with several different clients” during his time with the firm, but “beyond that, we have no comment on specific client work.”
But interviews with six people who were involved in projects that Mr. Buttigieg worked on at McKinsey, along with gleanings from his autobiography, fill in some of the blanks.
Mr. Buttigieg was recruited by McKinsey at Oxford. The company seeks out Rhodes scholars like him, banking that their intellects will make up for their lack of M.B.A.s from traditional recruiting grounds like Harvard Business School.
Yet even during the recruitment process, Mr. Helbling recalled, Mr. Buttigieg made it known that, like many applicants, he saw the business experience on offer at McKinsey as a good job “in the near term,” in his case an asset on the way to a career in public service.
The work he did in his first year and a half at the firm — nearly a 10th of his adult life — is effectively a blank slate, though tax records give some hints. In 2007, his first year with the company, he filed tax returns in Illinois, where he worked out of the Chicago office, as well as in his home state of Indiana. But he also filed in Michigan, and in the city of Detroit, where he worked on a McKinsey project. In 2008, he filed a return in Connecticut (McKinsey has an office in Stamford). The next year, he filed in Connecticut and in California.
In early 2009 Mr. Buttigieg was spending his days, and many nights, in a glass-walled conference room in suburban Toronto. He was analyzing Canadian grocery prices, plugging the numbers into a database running on a souped-up laptop his colleagues nicknamed “Bertha.” PowerPoint slides and spreadsheets crept into his dreams.
He knew this wasn’t his calling.
“And so it may have been inevitable that one afternoon, as I set Bertha to sleep mode to go out to the hallway for a cup of coffee, I realized with overwhelming clarity the reason this could not be a career for very long: I didn’t care,” Mr. Buttigieg wrote in his autobiography, “Shortest Way Home.”
It was the only experience at McKinsey that Mr. Buttigieg wrote about in any detail. His next act at the firm didn’t merit a single complete sentence in the book. But it was a radically different, and for him far more interesting, public-spirited project: More than four years before he would be deployed as a Navy Reserve officer, he was heading to Iraq and Afghanistan.
McKinsey’s focus in Iraq during the latter part of George W. Bush’s presidency and the early years of Barack Obama’s was to help the defense department identify Iraqi state-owned enterprises that could be revived. The idea was to provide employment for men who might otherwise join the insurgency against the American-led occupation.
The McKinsey consultants on the ground in 2006 and 2007 were almost exclusively military veterans like Alan Armstrong, who flew fighters for the Navy and had an M.B.A. from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Mr. Armstrong, in an interview, said that while the reasoning behind the program was sound, the ongoing insurgency and a crippled infrastructure — electricity, for example, was spotty or nonexistent — made execution very difficult.
But the program was popular among the top brass at the Pentagon. In 2006, the defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, met with the team in Iraq and asked about the “whiz kids” from McKinsey, which struck Mr. Armstrong as an obvious parallel to the Vietnam War era, when whiz kids of an earlier generation had worked for another defense secretary: Robert S. McNamara.
“McKinsey was more than willing to play along — they were being paid extraordinary rates to keep playing,” Mr. Armstrong said.
Another former McKinsey consultant who worked in Iraq recalled a surreal moment preparing a PowerPoint presentation while on a convoy to a shuttered food-processing factory, under the watchful eye of a burly private security guard. “It felt like we were completely half-assing everything — it wasn’t particularly effective,” he said.
Other former McKinsey consultants who worked on the Iraq project, Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, have a more positive recollection of the firm’s work.
“Over all I’m very proud of it,” said one consultant, who had met Mr. Buttigieg in Washington, where most of the McKinsey consultants assigned to the project worked when not visiting Iraq. Four of the six former McKinsey employees spoke on the condition that their names not be used, citing confidentiality agreements or the press policies of their current employers.
By 2009, the security situation in Baghdad was stable enough that McKinsey allowed in some nonveterans like Mr. Buttigieg, who had studied Arabic at Harvard. He went to Iraq aware of the stark similarities between the American experiences there and in Vietnam decades earlier.
At Harvard, his senior thesis had drawn parallels between the United States’ seeking to “save” Vietnam from “godless Communism,” and the 17th-century Puritan ministers who had come to America to civilize “savage lands.” In his autobiography and in an interview that has drawn charges of out-of-touch elitism from some quarters, he reflected on that history by quoting a passage from “The Quiet American” by Graham Greene: “Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
“I had protested the Iraq war,” Mr. Buttigieg said in an interview with The Times. “But I also believed that it was important to try to do my part to help have good outcomes there.” He found echoes, he said, of “the stories I had studied about well-intentioned Americans sometimes causing as many problems as they addressed.”
Mr. Buttigieg recalled spending only two nights in Baghdad, where McKinsey consultants were quartered in a building near the Tigris River, and “going to a ministry.” He never left the city during his time there, he said.
“Remember I’m like the junior guy, kind of new,” Mr. Buttigieg said. “It’s not like I was the one whose expertise was needed to sort out what was going on in the provinces.
“Eventually I knew what I was doing a little more and was more useful by the time I got to the Afghan side.”
Mission in Afghanistan
Mr. Buttigieg spent more time in Afghanistan. While Iraq had a fairly well-educated populace, a modern road system and large oil revenues, Afghanistan was far less developed. But the mission was similar: identify small and medium-size businesses to nurture so that they could employ Afghans, providing an attractive alternative to joining the Taliban while fueling economic growth.
Citing his nondisclosure agreement, Mr. Buttigieg declined to specify in the interview what he had worked on, though he mentioned having looked at opportunities in the agricultural industry — onions, tomatoes, olive oil — as well as paint manufacturing.
“They had some things to work with,” he said, “but would have benefited from support on things like business planning, more resources on how to plug in and eventually connections to markets too.”
In the years after Mr. Buttigieg left McKinsey, that program came under criticism from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. McKinsey had been awarded $18.6 million for the project, but the watchdog wrote in an April 2018 report that it had been able to find just one piece of related work product: a 50-page report on the economic potential of the city of Herat.
A former McKinsey consultant who worked in Afghanistan described a more extensive McKinsey presence there, involving work in the mining industry and a government transparency project, along with the Herat study.
“One of those sounds just exactly like what I was doing,” Mr. Buttigieg said. When asked which one, he said, “I can’t think of a way to answer that without getting in trouble with the N.D.A.”
Mr. Buttigieg’s work on the Afghanistan project ended in late 2009, close to the time he was commissioned as an officer in the Navy Reserve. And that October, when he was still several months from leaving McKinsey, he set in motion the next phase of his life: He registered as a candidate for office with the State of Indiana.
The next year, he lost a bid for state treasurer, after emphasizing his McKinsey experience during the campaign. (He recounted at one campaign event that after his Rhodes scholarship, “I came back and went into business, and I worked for a company where my job was to do math. I’m a card-carrying nerd.”) In 2011, at age 29, he was elected mayor of South Bend.
The full range of Mr. Buttigieg’s work at McKinsey isn’t clear, though in his autobiography he says that he worked on other projects, including “energy efficiency research” to help curb greenhouse-gas emissions for a client he didn’t name. He also found time in the summer of 2008 to travel to Somaliland, the autonomous region in the Horn of Africa. He went as a tourist, but while there talked to local officials and wrote an account of his experience for The International Herald Tribune.
Mr. Buttigieg has been asked on the presidential campaign trail about his time at McKinsey and, in several interviews this year, has sought to reconcile the company’s recent troubles with his own work there.
For Mr. Buttigieg, the solution to McKinsey’s ethical pitfalls may come in a rethinking of the rules that business abides by. Maximizing shareholder value, the North Star of modern American capitalism, has a downside when the rules of the game leave many people worse off, he said.
“The challenge is that’s not good enough at a time when we are seeing how the economy continues to become more and more unequal, and we are seeing the ways in which a lot of corporate behavior that is technically legal is also not acceptable in terms of its impact,” he said. “There has got to be a higher standard.”
That places the retailer 10th among S&P 500 companies with the widest gap in pay between the CEO and a typical worker, based on an analysis of more than 330 firms that have disclosed the figures so far.
Retailers, which often rely on part-time and seasonal workers to fill their labor force, take four of the top 10 spots on the list of companies with the largest pay gap, including Kohl’s Corp. and Gap Inc. Mr. McMillon earns 1,188 times more than the median employee, according to the filing.
“Our company is unique because we are significantly larger than most of our peer group companies in terms of revenue, market capitalization, and the size and scope of our world-wide associate population,” said Walmart in the filing.
The company is one of the largest private employers with more than 2.3 million employees world-wide and around 1.5 million in the U.S. The figures include both full-time and part-time workers.
Walmart disclosed the pay ratio as part of a broader requirement of the postcrisis Dodd-Frank law that went into effect this year.
Among the 18 retailers that have reported this data so far, Walmart’s median pay falls near the middle. By comparison, Amazon.com Inc. ’s median worker earns $28,446, while Gap employees fall at the bottom of the group at $5,375.
“We have focused on our associates and we have focused on the pay, the training, so they can build a career with us,” said Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove.
Walmart has raised the minimum pay for its U.S. store workers in recent years, moving to $11 earlier this year, amid a tight labor market.
Retail-industry officials argue that median-pay and pay-ratio figures for their industry shouldn’t be compared with others because the widespread use of part-time and seasonal workers makes both look more extreme. The rules for calculating the figures don’t allow companies to annualize most pay figures.
Walmart also said it will shuffle its board. McDonald’s Corp. Chief Executive Steve Easterbrook will join the board, while longtime independent lead director James Cash and Instagram Chief Executive Kevin Systrom won’t stand for re-election, according to the filing. Earlier this year, Sarah Friar, chief financial officer of mobile payment company Square Inc, joined Walmart’s board.
But how can the economic and political power of the middle class be restored to save capitalism?
Capitalism can be saved through the formation of a new political party. For instance, did you know that the largest political party in the country is neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party, but the party of nonvoters?
Just consider the 2012 presidential election. Only 58.2 percent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote.
A third party could be founded to unite apathetic voters, returning a political voice to disenfranchised Americans. This party should endeavor to enable the economic success of the country’s majority.
But to do this, the party would need to reform America’s system of campaign financing, which currently allows wealthy individuals to leverage their money to influence politicians. Beyond that, the party would need to raise the minimum wage, give priority to labor agreements instead of creditor agreements and limit the size of Wall Street’s gigantic banks.
When that’s completed, the corporation too will need to be reinvented. As the system is set up today, the financial interest of corporations means lower pay for the average worker and extremely high pay for executives.
One strategy for changing this system would be to tie corporate tax rates to the ratio of what a CEO makes compared with the pay of an average worker. The greater the difference, the higher the tax. This would give corporations an economic incentive to increase the average wage of employees.
Capitalism is not lost. Yet if it is to survive, it will have to be reorganized to better distribute its profits.
Not so long ago, corporate leaders understood they had a stake in the country’s prosperity.
The October 1944 edition of Fortune magazine carried an article by a corporate executive that makes for amazing reading today. It was written by William B. Benton — a co-founder of the Benton & Bowles ad agency — and an editor’s note explained that Benton was speaking not just for himself but on behalf of a major corporate lobbying group. The article then laid out a vision for American prosperity after World War II.
At the time, almost nobody took postwar prosperity for granted. The world had just endured 15 years of depression and war. Many Americans were worried that the end of wartime production, combined with the return of job-seeking soldiers, would plunge the economy into a new slump.
.. Today victory is our purpose,” Benton wrote. “Tomorrow our goal will be jobs, peacetime production, high living standards and opportunity.” That goal, he wrote, depended on American businesses accepting “necessary and appropriate government regulation,” as well as labor unions. It depended on companies not earning their profits “at the expense of the welfare of the community.” It depended on rising wages.
.. These leftist-sounding ideas weren’t based on altruism. The Great Depression and the rise of European fascism had scared American executives. Many had come to believe that unrestrained capitalism was dangerous — to everyone. The headline on Benton’s article was, “The Economics of a Free Society.”
.. In the years that followed, corporate America largely followed this prescription. Not every executive did, of course, and management and labor still had bitter disputes. But most executives behaved as if they cared about their workers and communities. C.E.O.s accepted pay packages that today look like a pittance. Middle-class incomes rose fasterin the 1950s and 1960s than incomes at the top. Imagine that: declining income inequality.
And the economy — and American business — boomed during this period, just as Benton and his fellow chieftains had predicted.
Things began to change in the 1970s. Facing more global competition and higher energy prices, and with Great Depression memories fading, executives became more aggressive. They decided that their sole mission was maximizing shareholder value. They fought for deregulation, reduced taxes, union-free workplaces, lower wages and much, much higher pay for themselves. They justified it all with promises of a wonderful new economic boom. That boom never arrived.
.. Even when economic growth has been decent, as it is now, most of the bounty has flowed to the top. Median weekly earnings have grown a miserly 0.1 percent a year since 1979. The typical American family today has a lower net worth than the typical family did 20 years ago. Life expectancy, shockingly, has fallen this decade.
.. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator, is now rolling out a platform for her almost-certain presidential campaign, and it includes an answer to this question. It is a fascinating one, because it differs from the usual Democratic agenda of progressive taxes and bigger social programs (which Warren also supports). Her idea is the most intriguing policy ideato come out of the early 2020 campaign.
Warren wants an economy in which companies again invest in their workers and communities. Yet she doesn’t believe it can happen organically, as it did in the 1940s, because financial markets will punish well-meaning executives who stop trying to maximize short-term profits. “They can’t go back,” she told me recently. “You have to do it with a rule.”
.. require corporate boards to take into account the interests of customers, employees and communities. To make sure that happens, 40 percent of a company’s board seats would be elected by employees. Germany uses a version of this “shared-governance” model, mostly successfully. Even in today’s hypercompetitive economy, German corporations earn nice profits with a philosophy that looks more like William Benton’s than Gordon Gekko’s.
.. Is Warren’s plan the best way to rein in corporate greed? I’m not yet sure. I want to see politicians and experts hash out her idea and others — much as they hashed out health care policy in the 2008 campaign.
.. But I do know this: American capitalism isn’t working right now. If Benton and his fellow postwar executives returned with the same ideas today, they would be branded as socialists. In truth, they were the capitalists who cared enough about the system to save it. The same goes for the new reformers.