- Big 4 Consulting
- Transitioning from finance to operations
- Overview of working in operations
- Current challenges and future career outlook
Garret Prather began his career with Deloitte’s consulting practice and leveraged this experience into ops roles with globally recognized companies. Read about working in Big 4 consulting and how to transition into operations!
I was born and raised in Kansas. I went to KU where I got a finance degree and then joined Deloitte in their consulting practice. At the time, the job title was as a project controller, but I don’t believe they still are called that. I was also able to take night classes at Rockhurst to get my MBA while at Deloitte, which was one of the benefits of working with the Big 4 since they paid my way.
My wife also worked at Deloitte as an auditor, so we used it as a springboard to move to New York City after we got married. We were in New York for seven years where I had two other jobs that were really fun, really interesting. We moved back to KC right before the pandemic, which was pure coincidence and more because we had a toddler, living in a one-bedroom apartment. It did make it interesting as far as jobs went because the pandemic timing led me to be unemployed for four months before landing on my feet at Ascend Learning.
I was a project controller within the department, which was different from your normal consultant, who's going to be on the road more. I was able to work out of the KC office and primarily support projects on not only the project level, but also the account level when it came to financials. What that meant was analyzing how the project was doing when it came to consulting hours and whether it would be profitable at both the project and account level. We would then propose adjustments that needed to be made whether that meant going after a change order or adjusting staffing.
It was interesting in that aspect because you got to know teams on that project level, but then you also got really good time with leadership on talking through financials at a much higher level and ensuring Deloitte was a profitable business. That’s where my practice was unique; we were making sure we were doing the right projects versus how we are going to get the project done, which is more traditional consulting.
From my experience there were two general types of engagements. One was focused on technology, where you’re providing consulting services such as how a company will implement a new ERP system or how to integrate several different softwares and systems stemming from something like an acquisition.
The other type is what most people would think of as “traditional” consulting in problem solving. A company would provide a Request for Proposal (RFP) which lays out the goals they would want a consulting service to provide and can be very broad in scope. An example could be a company that wants to go from having a regional product offering to expanding domestically and then in five years have a solid footprint throughout North America. The consultants would be asked to come in, analyze sales channels and present a recommendation.
Engagement length could vary from multiple years for one client to more short stint projects of a couple months. With consulting a client can just continue to request more services once a certain project has been completed. At a certain point you would either roll off that client to see something new or get promoted to a point you’re leading your own team.
Moving from the Kansas City to the New York office was a big change. I went from working in an office of 90 people to over 1,000 where everyone trying to find a seat on a Friday was entertaining. After a while I had a bit of an itch to go into more small business and management type roles. At Deloitte you learn so many things that are applicable later in your career, and ultimately, I had a curiosity to try something different and there was no better place to explore that than New York City.
That’s what led me to leave Deloitte and find a place called What If Innovation. They focused on innovation consulting, which at the time was hard to explain, but now I think every Big 4 has an innovation arm within their consulting practice. Innovation consulting is centered around how you can get more out of your products or services and how you can adjust your organization to be placed more innovatively to get the most out of your people. It was night and day in terms of culture and responsibilities.
The New York Times did really help me focus on continuing to extend my skills into the operation side that really started at What If. Up to that point, my work was primarily focused on finance with a minor focus in operations. This role confirmed my shift from primarily finance to primarily operations. It was a great opportunity to help bring operational strategy to the advertising side of the company.
They had just made two acquisitions on the advertising side. The acquisitions now gave us the opportunity to provide this all-encompassing advertising offering to our clients, but we had to figure out how to bring all those together. It was a super quick, super interesting year and half I spent there before making my way back to KC.
Ascend Learning is a provider of online educational content and software for a wide range of different industries. There are currently 17 different business units under the Ascend umbrella of businesses. I operate under our healthcare pillar which has five businesses that range in both size - from hundreds to tens of millions in revenue per year - and the services they provide.
My primary role is to oversee the account management within that segment of the business. This entails everything from outstanding service to ensure our clients have the products they need to making sure we are billing our accounts on time, resolving all operational issues that stem from that, and of course cultivating the people within my function.
I view operations as working with people more than numbers, which was naturally more of a desire for myself. However, having that finance foundation coming out of school and with my first couple of jobs helped me better explore where I could have an impact and what I ultimately wanted to do. If you look at how traditional finance jobs worked a decade ago versus now, you will see that they take a more forward stance now and are integral into crucial decision-making processes. That skill set lends itself well to switching over to operations.
It can be simple things that pay huge dividends when making the transition. Having experience with pulling data and sifting through large datasets to provide insights seemed standard on the operational roles I was applying for in 2020. You're able to use that to your advantage if you were to make the switch because so much of the decision-making process within operations incorporates data now.
Deloitte, and all Big 4 I’m sure, equips you early on in your career with a toolbox of skills to be able to pursue all different kinds of industries and jobs. There have been aspects and experiences of my time at Deloitte that helped me get my first job at What If Innovation and are still applicable today with my current role. As far as getting your foot in the door for potential opportunities, being able to have Deloitte on your resume also helps in that regard. It carries a weight that can make conversations more enhanced and help you demonstrate the value you can bring to a company.
I’ve seen Gen Z come into the workforce and push in interesting ways that I didn’t ever think was the norm when I was coming up. I think in general they are just more comfortable with being uncomfortable. I wish I had a little more of that push to go out on a limb and follow my gut initially.
I don’t have any regrets as far as where I’ve gone and where I’ve ended up, but when I look back when I was coming out of Big 4, I experienced a lot of business principles that apply to a majority of different roles out there. Overall, just having that confidence that I was indeed equipped with the tools needed to take my career wherever I wanted to take it is something I wish Garret back then could have had reinforced to him.
Scalability. A big thing with operations is how can you take what is there currently and not only meet current demand, but also prepare yourself for the future demand. It’s a great problem to have for companies that are growing, but still a challenge, nonetheless.
In every job I have held operations is trying to keep pace with a business’, well, business. You must prepare to move quickly. The initial focus of a business is the product you’re going to sell and how you’re going to sell it. Then you figure out how to operate that business effectively and continue to scale.
My hope is that I just continue to take on more of a leadership role from an operational standpoint. I always feel it’ll be geared towards more of a small business versus a larger corporation, but I’m still trying to figure out that sweet spot that works for me.
I have a very undeveloped idea where I could find my way back into the consulting world but partnering with small businesses that don’t necessarily have the budget to have someone focused on operations at a leadership level and providing that service. Almost like a fractional COO similar to the outsourced CFO concept.
Actually an article I just recently read in The New York Times - still a subscriber even though I no longer work there - was about Tesla taking control of their own supply chain (link here). It’s centered around how Tesla has had little disruption compared to these giant car companies. Elon Musk faced a ton of criticism when he started bringing it all in-house years ago and demanded they needed to control their own supply.
It’s unheard of within that industry in recent times to bring it all in-house, but through this process they were able to combat all the supply chain issues going on currently and ramp up production during the pandemic to meet demand. It puts a better lens around how Tesla, which is so small compared to GM and Ford, is viewed as larger according to the market cap because of its scalability. It’s interesting to read that from Elon’s perspective and that he had the conviction to say, ‘we’re going to do it this way’.