Few professionals-even lawyers-are more sought after for advice than management consultants; after all, advice is their stock in trade. That goes double for the vastly profitable consultancies operated by the Big Six accounting firms, which

strategize on everything from new product development to electronic commerce, in addition to balancing a bank's books and tax preparation.

The problem is that every one of these outfits has a string of close joint venture relationships with various technology-related vendors. And to some, that begs the question of whether these close associations compromises their objectivity. "Objectivity is becoming more and more a key issue to CEOs and CIOs," says Ladd A. Willis, an evp at First Manhattan Consulting Group. "They want to get an objective opinion on what is right and what isn't, and not have the baggage of not knowing what other financial deals or interlocking relationships exist that might compromise, explicitly or implicitly, the objectivity offered."

But not every consultant has this perspective. Some say that it's perfectly okay to have a deal with a vendor, as long as it's disclosed in advance. "Anything else would be professional suicide," says Dudley Smith, president of the New York-based World Association of Management Consulting Firms. "A consultant has to be purer than Caesar's wife, or he's out of business."

Further, says Smith, banks often seek out Big Six consultancies with close ties to technology vendors because the association presumably confers special expertise the banks want.

Thomas Goldstein, CFO of Rocky Mount, NC-based Centura Bank-a former A.T. Kearny consultant himself-also seems unconcerned about consultant objectivity. "If anything, a consultant will be hypercritical of a company he has a deal with and bend over backwards to only make a recommendation based on the numbers."

-reinbach tfn.com

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