The global consulting powerhouse has been in trouble for giving bad advice and working with corrupt entities.
Last week, McKinsey and Co. agreed to pay $574 million dollars to US authorities as part of a settlement for its role in the opioid crisis, which has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans.
The global consultancy giant has worked with pharmaceutical companies such as Purdue Pharma, which made billions from pushing its OxyContin painkiller on the market.
Prosecutors found that McKinsey advised its pharma clients on how to aggressively sell the addictive drugs. In some cases it suggested that the opiods be marketed through doctors who were more likely to prescribe them.
“They have never paid such a large penalty. Few firms have ever paid this large a penalty, for anything. As for scrutiny, McKinsey is clearly facing more than it used to,” Duff McDonald, author of The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, told TRT World.
McKinsey, which prides itself on having a long history of helping companies emerge out of crises, has been the subject of multiple controversies in recent years.
In 2019, The New York Times and ProPublica ran a series of stories highlighting the ways in which McKinsey bent rules to win government contracts and gave preference to profits over ethical conduct.
Privately-held Mckinsey has been in the consulting business for over 90 years. It’s known for hiring talent from the best universities and a stint at the company often means a prosperous career for business graduates.
Secretive about its work and clients, its army of 2,000 partners and thousands of other employees, advise companies and governments on how best to execute projects.
But at times it has landed itself in trouble for the work it does. Here are a few examples.
Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant sidekick
Soon after he took office in early 2017, former US President Donald Trump laid out its plan to check the flow of immigrants.
He touted building a wall on the border with Mexico, enforced visa restrictions for Muslim countries and introduced policies that led to the separation of children from their immigrant parents.
McKinsey, which began working with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency before Trump’s election, faced scrutiny after rights groups raised concerns that migrants were being mistreated at ICE detention facilities.
The consulting firm received $20 million for its services, which included advising ICE on how best to manage its detention facilities in a cost-effective way.
It proposed budget cuts. For example it recommended ICE save money on food served to the detainees or send the migrants to facilities in rural areas to cut back on expenditure.
Those recommendations even made ICE officials uncomfortable, a report by ProPublica found.
McKinsey severed its contract with ICE after a New York Times story exposed the nexus in 2018.
The South Africa scandal
In the last few years, McKinsey has agreed to pay more than $100 million to the South African government in compensation for its involvement in a massive corruption scandal.
The consultancy firm overcharged Eskom, a power utility, and worked with a sub-contractor that was linked with the Gupta brothers who bankrolled former South African President Jacob Zuma.
Zuma, who was forced to resign in 2018, faces corruption charges.
McKinsey earned millions of dollars in consultancy fees by partnering with the Gupta company which is accused of bribing officials to win contracts.
If its contract with Eskom had materialised, it would have been the largest fee for McKinsey in Africa at $700 million for its services on finding ways to end recurring power blackouts.
The Swissair disaster
Up until the 1990s, Swiss Air was one of the world’s finest airlines, known for punctuality and good service - as reliable as a Swiss watch.
When it looked for expansion, McKinsey, its longtime adviser, laid out a business plan which took the once-proud airline to the brink of bankruptcy.
Instead of focusing on the core business of flying passengers, the airline expanded its catering business and other ground services. Since Swissair itself was a mid-sized carrier, unlike Lufthansa, and wanted economies of scale, it began buying stakes in regional airlines.
The only condition for its investments in these troubled small airlines such as the French Air Littoral, AOM and Air Liberte, Belgium’s national carrier Sabena and LOT Polish Airlines, was that they will use Swissair’s ground services.
That was essentially buying customers. But the McKinsey strategy didn’t work out as planned and these airlines not only lost money themselves but forced Swissair to pump in hundreds of millions of dollars to keep them afloat.
Ultimately Swissair not just abandoned the strategy, but showed McKinsey the door.
The Enron disaster
McKinsey earned tens of millions for consultancy services sold to Enron, the energy trader which collapsed in 2001 after a massive accounting fraud.
Jeff Skilling, who was at the helm of Enron’s transformation from an energy trading firm into a behemoth which dealt in everything from natural gas to broadband, was a former McKinsey employee.
After Enron’s collapse, which rattled the American stock markets, McKinsey absolved itself from any responsibility, saying it was not an adviser on financial and reporting matters.
But up until the very end, it was promoting Enron’s business model, especially its off-balance sheet accounting practice, and encouraging others to follow suit.
One of the articles in its McKinsey Quarterly magazine, said “the deployment of off–balance-sheet funds using institutional investment money fostered [Enron’s] securitisation skills and granted it access to capital at below the hurdle rates of major oil companies.”
A McKinsey partner even wrote a book titled “Creative Destruction” in which he extolled Enron’s business model.
But even after all the controversies, corporate executives and government officials continue to flock to McKinsey for advice.
“McKinsey clearly sells something that its clients think is worth buying,” said McDonald.