M.B.A.’s of 2001 Line Up at Investment Banks and Consulting Firms

this oneA little over a year ago, the acronyms B2B and B2C stood for a lot more than the Internet business models they referred to. The implications of the terms “business-to-business” and “business-to-consumer” went far beyond the executive summaries of the Internet business plans they defined. In those byte-sized symbols, neatly wrapped around a number, was all the potential of the Internet: interconnectivity, communication, commerce, a level playing field and, of course, numbers, exponential numbers … big, beautiful numbers!

Now, B2B and B2C have new meaning. At Harvard Business School and others, students who have invested $100,000 in the belief that an education still counts for something in the business world have redefined B2B and B2C in the form of a joke-albeit a joke that, like many, is more true than funny:

B2B, B2C: “Back to Banking, Back to Consulting.”

This is how the top business students define their job search in the current economy. Investment banking and consulting jobs-which a year ago seemed staid, boring and, yes, low-paying compared to dot-com land-are once again really hot.

The same generation of students who not long ago were blowing off Morgan Stanley & Company’s campus presentations are now hoping that the bankers and consultants they once scoffed at as risk-averse company drones-mere salaried employees-will find their own limited experience interesting enough to merit a 30-minute interview. The bankers and consultants, in turn, are enjoying the reversal of fortune, as well as a certain degree of prestige that disappeared along with yellow ties and slicked-back hair.

“Last year, when I came to Goldman, I was, like, the stupid loser,” said a Harvard Business School graduate from the class of 2000, now an investment banking associate (who also recruits) at Goldman, Sachs & Company. “People were like, ‘Ooh, poor bastard, he has to go to Wall Street.’ This year, it’s the opposite; people say things like, ‘Oh, wow! Congratulations.’”

“Last year, it was a good year to be a student,” said Bob Bonner, director of M.B.A. career management at the Wharton School. “This year, it’s a good year to be a company.”

At least in terms of recruiting, the firms now seem to be holding the cards.

“If the pendulum swung toward the dot-com world last year,” said Caitlin McLaughlin, vice president of M.B.A. recruiting at Salomon Smith Barney, “it has clearly swung toward investment banking this year.”

And consulting. “While it’s premature to declare victory in the war for talent,” said Andrew Giangola, chief spokesman for McKinsey & Company, “interest in Mc-Kinsey is certainly surging. This partially reflects some changes we made internally, as well as the external environment. Dot-com work has lost some of its allure. Talented people who were looking for a chance to change the world have now had a dose of reality.”

Sure, these comments are self-serving. But the students looking for jobs this year are confirming those assertions. Suddenly, the prospect of 80- or 100-hour work weeks, superiors, pitch books, discounted cash-flow analyses, business-unit strategy engagements and, yes, a biweekly paycheck seems pretty attractive when one considers the alternatives.

Whereas last year, “anyone who could spell his name could get a job at an investment bank,” at least a second-tier one, according to one associate, this year the banks as well as the consulting firms are able to be a lot more selective, one associate said.

It’s hard to gauge just exactly how selective, since firms and business schools are generally reluctant to release hard figures. But the numbers available do confirm, if somewhat murkily, the trend being described by students, career counselors and recruiters.

A spokesman for Salomon Smith Barney said that applications for investment-banking jobs have doubled over the last year, and that the yield of students who have accepted offers from the firm has jumped from 50 percent last year to 73 percent this year for full-time offers and 86 percent for summer-associate offers. This means the firm can make fewer offers to fill the same number of slots. Morgan Stanley & Company is rumored to have received 150 résumés from Stanford Graduate School of Business this year, compared to 25 last year (the firm declined to comment for this article).

Combine increased demand with the softening market (Morgan Stanley, Bear Stearns & Company and Credit Suisse First Boston have all started downsizing, or at least have publicly talked about it; Mercer Consulting and Blackstone Group, among others, have scaled back on-campus interviews), and the numbers no longer seem to be in the students’ favor.

“If you haven’t worked in banking before business school or over the summer, you’d better come from McKinsey,” said an associate at a bulge-bracket firm.

And if all you’ve got is a dot-com degree, forget it.

“The dot-com veterans are a bunch of 23-year-olds left with beer money and a dubious experience base,” sniffed a senior banker at one of the Big Three firms.

“We would hope to have our entire new associate class come from ex-analysts and summer associates,” he continued. “We’re basically recruiting nobody. We do it to keep up an image on campus, but we don’t hire that many people.”

“Last year you felt like students were kind of thumbing their noses at traditional things,” said Wharton’s Mr. Bonner. “This year, you feel like firms are kind of thumbing their noses back.”

Indeed, bankers and consultants-who tend to get A’s in school, who cross their T’s, dot their I’s, and shine their shoes-have had a lot to swallow during the last couple years as they watched their long-haired counterparts, who flew by the seats of their chinos, pile up the paper pay. While the investment bankers had plenty to do with all the absurd valuations of the Internet bubble, their cut of the commission fees seemed like mere cab fare compared to the paper wealth reaped by their clients. More than one Merrill Lynch & Company banker has been known to complain about how former colleague Halsey Minor, who left Merrill to found Cnet Inc. and make hundreds of millions on paper, at least, was a mediocre analyst; one pointed out that he was often late to work. (Mr. Minor responded through a spokeswoman that he finished in the top 10 percent of his analyst bonus pool and that Merrill Lynch helped fund his company and lent him office space.) In any case, Cnet’s stock price has tanked 84 percent in the last year. So there’s not as much reason to be jealous anymore.

“We don’t feel poor anymore,” the senior banker said. “Very few people actually made money on the Internet, so it does kind of make you feel better about banking.”

Of course, with the economy tanking and with all the layoffs and downsizing, the bankers may soon find themselves on the sell side of the interview circuit, alongside all the dot-commers they gleefully watched flame out.

Some on the Street already have. Meanwhile, the exodus is reversing direction. Ex-bankers who left for dot-coms, both failed and successful, are trying to come back to Wall Street.

“Investment banking is probably what I should have done to begin with when I graduated from school,” said a Harvard Business graduate who spent four years at CSFB before school and feels lucky to have gotten a job at Merrill Lynch after a brief stint at a failing dot-com.

“At business school, we all got really wrapped into the Internet world. It sounded like a lot of fun to work at a start-up-we’d have a lot of responsibility and, you know, create big, grand businesses. Clearly, that was not what it’s about.”

“Technology sucks,” the senior banker said. “There’s no money. People are going back to traditional safeguards.”

It’s not just about the money, however.

Job hunters fed up with the unorthodox management styles of the dot-com world are craving structure, as well as the professionalism and “general ability to get things done,” as the senior banker put it, that characterizes bankers and consultants, most of whom hold M.B.A. degrees. One Harvard Business School student who worked in investment banking before school opted not to return to either of the dot-coms she worked at this summer, even though they were relatively legitimate ones: “The person I reported to at Amazon.com was someone who knew a lot about dot-com business in general, but she herself had limited business experience. I felt a little frustrated by not being trained by or working for someone with more experience and more management skills.” She also found her experience at Firedrop, the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Vinod Khosla–funded start-up which “shifted its business plan 180 degrees” while she was there, somewhat unsettling.

She’s going to work for Goldman Sachs after graduation. “The thing I like best about the firm are the people,” she said. “They’ve recently graduated from Stanford or Harvard.”

Investment banks and consulting firms are also starting to enjoy the benefits of the efforts they’ve made to make themselves more attractive. Faced with the brain drain of recent years, they took steps to address quality-of-life issues, promote high performers more quickly and make “a general commitment to professional development,” one Harvard student observed. At McKinsey, they’ve created the associate-partner position, designed to give the firm’s young stars more responsibility and more money. And whereas consulting jobs were once characterized by parking-lot-option analyses in places like Cleveland, firms now have diversified their client work to reflect the challenges of the New Economy. Many firms have venture capitalists as clients, as well as in-house incubators; as a result, employees can enjoy the education and exhilaration of the entrepreneurial experience without all that risk-at least that’s what the companies are telling their recruits, while junior associates at some of these firms are reportedly doing pro bono and internal projects now that business has slowed.

It’s true that firms have gotten better at marketing themselves. Take, for example, this interview “question” from one of the top banks, surely designed to make the associate’s job sound a lot more interesting than it actually is: “Pretend you’re Michael Eisner. You’ve invested a huge amount of money in theme parks in China in a joint venture with the Chinese government. At the same time, your film division is getting ready to release a film on the life of the Dalai Lama. The minister of finance in China calls and says, ‘I understand you’re going to release this film. We understand its content is going to make us look bad. We’re going to nationalize the theme parks if you release the film and take away your interest in the joint venture.’ What do you do? What are the key things you analyze?” (Supposedly this question is loosely based on a real-life situation involving the release of Seven Years in Tibet.)

The abusive “stress interviews” of the past seem to have become more or less obsolete. While math questions like “How many degrees are between the hour hand and minute hand on a clock at 12:15?” are still fair game (answer: less than 90, as the hour hand moves slightly past the 12), a scenario like this one at Lehman Brothers, chronicled by Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker in 1989, probably wouldn’t fly today: “Your first interview might begin with the interviewer asking you to open the window. You were on the forty-third floor overlooking Water Street. The window was sealed shut. That, of course, was the point. The interviewer just wanted to see whether your inability to comply with his request led you to yank, pull and sweat until finally you melted into a puddle of foiled ambition. Or, as one sad applicant was rumored to have done, threw a chair through the window.”

As job and stock options proliferated in the late 90′s, students at the top schools, and their advocates in the career-services offices, were able to demand better behavior from potential suitors.

“Harvard’s pretty good at preventing hardball tactics,” said Brian Shortsleeve, a second-year student at Harvard Business. “Everybody talks here-so if a firm pulls a weird stunt, the whole class will know a day later.”

Consequently the firms, once desperate for talent, have learned how to rein in their big egos and mind their manners.

Role Reversal

But now, they may not have to try so hard. The roles have been reversed. Like the fat kid who returns to school from summer camp 20 pounds lighter, the leaner recruiters are enjoying their newfound popularity and increased sense of self-worth, if not net worth. Once again, they’re in a position to play hard to get.

The students, for the most part, no longer have that luxury. “To be successful, they want to see you’re hungry to work at that firm,” said Regina Resnick, director of M.B.A. career services at Columbia Business School. “If at any point you take them for granted and think, ‘Oh, they’re dying for me’… you just can’t do that.”

One second-year Harvard student noted that some of her peers got axed from the process this year because they demanded too much going in. Whereas last year, students who had worked in banking prior to business school could get themselves hired as second-year rather than first-year associates (read: as much as 50 percent more in bonus money), that was not really an option this year. “If you start indicating that you’re not going to be happy unless you’re a second-year,” she said, “it may be something they don’t want to deal with.”

“I didn’t appear all that hungry going in,” said one of her classmates, who is headed towards consulting after being rejected by all the banks. “I think on some level, at the end of the day, I wasn’t going to do banking, and they might have figured that out before I did, so that’s why they dinged me.” He paused a minute before admitting, “But I’m sure that’s my ego talking so I can save face.”

Indeed, the recruiting experience has become so painful at times that some students are ready to explore other options. Take Alex Ambash, a senior majoring in computer science at Yale College: He applied to more than 35 companies, only to land one offer he didn’t want. Mr. Ambash said he’s fed up with the process, having endured the “asshole” from Credit Suisse and the “bitch” from Salomon Smith Barney-not to mention the scorn from his more successful friends.

“As a result of this experience,” the young student sighed, “I may become a doctor.”