COVID fallout, flexibility and Fenway Park: an interview with Aaron Brandon

about 2 months ago Aaron Brandon

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​Boston’s own Aaron Brandon leads corporate and private equity strategy recruitment for the United States, sitting within Investigo’s Strategy Consulting team in New York. With the market now taking some tentative steps towards recovery, Aaron spoke to us about the challenging last few months and about his expectations for the coming year. It’s fair to say he’s rather more optimistic about the outlook for strategy recruitment than he is about the Red Sox’s prospects in the new Major League Baseball season!

How is your market being affected by the current crisis?

It has certainly been affected. Going into COVID, there was a fairly robust market and our team of four did very well. When the market gets tough, however, discretionary spend on strategy is one of the first areas that companies try to cover internally. But it has been coming back slowly but surely. It’s a recovery that is probably taking a hockey stick shape. July has been better than June, June was better than May and I expect that to continue until hopefully in Q4, or Q1 next year, we have a similarly robust market.

How are your clients reacting to a challenging climate?

It’s very much an industry-based recovery story. If I were an airline recruiter, I’d be out of business. That said, there are pockets where there’s quite a bit of activity. Software and cloud-based companies are quite busy. Life sciences and pharmaceuticals tend to be recession resistant – if you need medicine, you need medicine. Financial services, an area I have covered quite a bit in my career, has been a bit slower and more thoughtful as it’s a more conservative industry. Companies in that sector are stable but there’s a whole additional layer of bureaucracy involved now. It has more to do with the health of a company than the function itself. Strategy is something that’s needed for every company of a certain size, but some are planning for three to five years out and thinking about growth, while others are thinking about survival in the immediate term.

What are the big trends you’re seeing in your market?

A hot topic right now is implementing people who can marry the tech side with the business side, especially in legacy, older industries like publishing or insurance. They’ve been highly successful for a long time without technology, but now it’s being implemented to bring along necessary change. This can bring internal misalignment. Someone who can act as an ambassador and bridge the two sides to quickly develop products, bring about transformation, and increase efficiency will be in high demand. Transformation is really important, it always has been, but it’s been forced to the forefront by COVID.

Process improvement, turnaround and restructuring skill sets have become very important as well. Someone who can go into the business, see what’s underperforming and turn that around.

The M&A skill set was popular, but not so much now. There are still pockets of demand in certain industries. That said, with business changing drastically, valuations are strange and there’s often no consensus. A lot of companies are putting a hold on skill sets that can evaluate M&A opportunities as not a lot is happening quite yet.

Would you expect there to be a surge in M&A activity when the market opens up?

Yes, I think so. Every time there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity. In the last financial crisis, fortune favored the bold. Many companies who went out and did something in a situation with bigger risk did really well over the next ten years. There will be M&A because there’s opportunity. If I’m a well-funded organization, especially in a year where the market doesn’t reflect performance, I would definitely consider it. There will be M&A and there will be deals, it just hasn’t happened at scale yet.

What will be the major challenges for employers in the year ahead?

While markets aren’t necessarily reflecting performance today, I think next year there will be lots more austerity and companies will need to be cost-conscious. They’ll be forced to do a little bit more with a little bit less. Some are doing fantastically in a COVID-affected world that’s suited their products quite well. But as a broader trend for transformation in a drastically altered world, they’ll need to be a bit scrappier, more resourceful, able to execute under ambiguity. Able to MacGuyver, fix things with duct tape.

I understand there was a bit of tension with Joe (Ogeka, Yankees fan) after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2018. How are things now?

The good news is that it was never really too bad! Although maybe I’m only saying that as I was the winner. I’m from Boston originally, and the city’s a rival with New York on every level. But we joke about it and keep it light. If I’m honest, the Red Sox will be terrible this year, but I’ll take my medicine. Joe will get it back!

That’s been the situation for half my life, so I’m very grateful for the 2000s. I’ve had a lifetime of good sports memories at this point so it’s been a good run. When the Red Sox beat the Yankees two years ago, I was at one of the games in New York that Joe was at too, and he was ready to decorate my desk if the Yankees beat us! When the Red Sox won, he didn’t talk to me for three days!

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