In Defense of Small EHS Consulting Firms

May 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Quick Reads

On December 30, 2011, an article titled The World’s Largest Environmental Consulting Firms was posted in the EHS Journal. The article highlighted the “Global 12,” the 12 largest environmental consulting firms. These are firms that have many offices located, in most cases, around the world, and they offer a wide breadth of environmental, health, and safety (EHS) services. For many large client companies, the Global 12 are a strong source of comprehensive, multi-sector EHS assistance.

However, for many companies, small consulting firms — even solo practitioners — can offer a competitive alternative to the Global 12. Because of the economic recession, many highly experienced EHS and energy professionals have been released from their former positions and have founded their own consulting firms; these small firms provide client companies with a viable alternative for procuring consulting services. Depending on the project, these small professional firms can provide services that are equal to or superior in performance yet lower in cost than services provided by the Global 12 and other large consulting firms.


Advantages of Small Consulting Firms

I have worked for a Global 12 firm and now have my own EHS and energy consulting firm. Here are six advantages of using a small EHS consulting firm:

  1. Personalized service.  At most small firms, the owner serves the client, and work is conducted by the owner or by a trusted senior staff member. With this arrangement, the client speaks directly with “the boss” and does not have to go through channels, as is required at a large consulting firm.
  2. Expert service.  With a small firm, the client gets the direct benefit of the owner’s or the senior person’s many years of experience. The small consulting firm’s owner or experienced practitioner has direct involvement in the project from start to finish.
  3. Passion.  Most small firms are thrilled to have a client’s business as even one project can form a significant portion of the company’s workload. This differs from the situation with a very large firm, where a client’s project is likely to be one of many. Small firms can take the time to build close personal relationships with their clients. Not that large firms take their clients for granted, but small firms generally are quite appreciative of their clients’ business and make that extra effort to please because their level of service is a direct reflection of the owner and the firm.
  4. Flexibility.  Of course, a major disadvantage of using a small firm is the limited depth of experience of their personnel compared with that of a very large firm. No one person can know everything; however, there is a growing tendency among small companies to create teams to expand the breadth of their expertise. For example, I was recently involved in a teaming arrangement with three other firms representing other specialties that were needed to deliver detailed greenhouse gas reporting services. One Fortune 100 company compared our team with one of the Global 12, and we won based on merit. That Global 12 firm (and others) did not have expertise in the four areas that our team of four had. Furthermore, the evaluation did not even consider that our cost was lower than the big firm’s cost.
  5. Lower overhead.  Of course, small firms have lower overhead costs (e.g., reduced office expenses and fewer or no nontechnical employees, such as human resources and marketing professionals) than large firms. Also, project labor costs tend to be lower because there is less duplication of services (a second or third person reviewing the work of somebody else at a large firm). Therefore, in most cases, smaller firms can perform the same work at a lower cost.
  6. Local know-how.  Many small firms have an intimate knowledge of the regulations and even the unwritten procedures in the states where they practice. At many large firms, professionals have to handle projects in many locales and may not have the depth of experience in a single jurisdiction. The practitioner’s experience in the local market is important.

Companies seeking EHS and energy consulting services should consider both small and large consulting firms when assessing their needs. While some situations may be better suited to a Global 12 firm, others can be solved just as well, if not better, by the right small firm.


About the Author

Marc Karell, P.E., CEM, is the owner of Climate Change & Environmental Services, LLC, a small consulting firm specializing in air pollution, climate change, sustainability, and energy services for a wide variety of industrial and corporate clients.

Photograph: The End by T. Al Nakib, London, England.


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2 Comments to “In Defense of Small EHS Consulting Firms”

  1. Doug Hileman says:

    Marc – Good perspectives. I have found that Clients may trust a small firm because they (we) do not have the same pressure to grow a project; find the big add-on; and feed other staff. We don’t HAVE other staff, and we don’t WANT projects that are beyond our capacity to do well. There’s no bait-and-switch, because there IS no “switch.”
    Even when small scale appears to be a limitation, I have found that it can be an advantage. When projects have been too big for me/ my network to do, I’ve developed reasonable criteria for RFPs, and consultant evaluation and selection. I’m happy to let the Big 12 do what they do, and the Clients are confident with the rigor in establishing expectations, roles, responsibilities – and in getting the right one.

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