Date posted: 9/02/2018 7 min read

Leading PwC into the creative future

A product of Australia, India and New York, Sammy Kumar FCA was chosen to help guide the strategic evolution of PwC.

In Brief

  • Kumar has worked for the firm in Melbourne, Hong Kong, Japan, San Francisco and New York.
  • He is chief strategist for PwC and in charge of the firm’s ASEANZ consulting business.
  • He has helped to build a dynamic business culture “where people want to have fun and do great things”.

PwC’s year-old Melbourne office is a stylish mash-up of sci-fi movie set, upscale cafe and hipster co-working space. From the Flame Tree, a four-storey digital artwork that pulls weather data from the roof, to a 360-degree immersion room and the rooftop bar, it’s the very model of a modern consultancy. And it has Sammy Kumar’s fingerprints all over it. 

As chief strategist for PwC and in charge of the firm’s ASEANZ consulting business, Kumar’s role is all about making sure the firm is leaning into the future. “For us it’s about relevance in the marketplace, problem solving, [making sure] we can authentically live our values while bringing our strategy off the page.”

An army of professionals

Since restarting its consultancy business in the early 2000s, PwC has added new revenue streams to the standard tax, audit and vanilla business advisory business fees. As well as a phalanx of accountants, lawyers and tech heads, the firm employs non-traditional business professionals such as doctors and nurses to consult to health clients. 

“If you are going into a hospital telling people how to be more efficient, you’d better have medical staff, because they won’t necessarily listen to a chartered accountant,” Kumar notes. He adds that that the firm is dipping its toes into engineering consultancy, as well as the contractor workforce space.

(Pictured: Sammy Kumar)

In fact, the major challenge for the firm is finding the right professionals to cater for the constantly changing market. “We can’t find the talent in areas such as data, cyber, strategy, change and design. Firms like ours have done well within certain [traditional] paradigms that have massively evolved over the last 100 years or so. We’ve had a lot of time to adapt to change but now the pace of change is different. It is so rapid.”

“Disruption” may be a term that is lavishly overused by consultants, but Kumar says businesses that overlook the implications of today’s globalisation- and technology-driven changes do so at their peril. “I think it’s very real, [but] I don’t think Australian businesses know what to do with it yet. There are opportunities as much as there are threats; it’s how you embrace it.”

“Of course it’s hard when you lean in to something that is less well-known. You’ll make some mistakes.”

The Australian business environment is not forgiving of mistakes because, says Kumar, everything is about yield. “The analysts love yield, the shareholders therefore love yield and management deliver yield to the best of their ability. So [business] is not geared towards making risk-taking mistakes, and that’s true of the country as well.”

Half running all the time

Kumar has worked for the firm in Asia and then in the US, where he first made partner. He has long had a thirst for change, shaking things up and doing things differently, while bringing everyone along for the ride. His past might just have something to do with it. 

Not long after the White Australia Policy ended, Kumar’s parents – both professors – arrived from Delhi for what was then supposed to be a few years when Kumar was a toddler. “And it’s the same old story, they loved it and didn’t go home,” he says. His parents were keen on fitting into the Australian culture from the very beginning. “We are Hindu and while my parents are vegetarian, my school lunch would have been ham sandwiches.” He admits that as he has become older he has come “closer to appreciating what India is and my love for it”. 

On his first day of prep his teacher decided his actual name, Sameer, would be too hard for the other kids to pronounce. “There wouldn’t have been another Indian kid in the school, so I became Sammy and 45 years later, it has sort of stuck,” he says.'

The Kumars were the “typical immigrant family” with both parents working. While Kumar’s father took up a post teaching advanced mathematics at Melbourne’s RMIT, his mother left academia and first packed vegetables, and later ended up owning restaurants.

At university young Kumar also worked in restaurants, although rarely in the family business, “because I always thought I’d get paid more at other places,” he jokes. Kumar thrived in the pressure-cooker environment of running the waiting floor in a 100-seater restaurant catering to 250 people a night. “The main thing I learned was the pure pacing, half running without showing the clients you were running.” It seems Kumar has been doing just that ever since.

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At school he dabbled in drama to combat natural shyness. Then he opted for a bachelor of business at Chisholm Institute of Technology, now part of Monash University, before starting a graduate traineeship with Price Waterhouse. At the time the firm’s natural recruiting ground was more likely to be Melbourne University. Kumar says his earlier education at private school Haileybury may have made him more attractive to recruiters. But it was probably his ability to communicate why he loved the creative aspects of his business degree that clinched the deal. 

His first year at the firm was like having to learn accounting all over again. “The degree prepares you but the work trains you,” he notes, even though photocopying and running errands for partners was all part of the deal. “We worked hard but we also got to have a lot of fun.” 

After six-month stints in Hong Kong and Japan, Kumar headed to the US for eight years, spending time in San Francisco during the early noughties’ tech boom and bust, then in New York experiencing the fallout from the 9/11 attacks. “It was hellishly shocking except for the amazing humanity that New York showed in the aftermath,” recounts Kumar. He had people sleeping on his Manhattan apartment floor because they couldn’t get out of the city. “Then a series of anthrax scares brought a sense of impending terror. We were evacuated from our building many times. You don’t forget the sound of those alarms in a hurry”.

Reintegrating into Australia

Kumar and his wife, a Canadian, had enjoyed New York as couple, but when their first child was born family life became a different game. “The apartment was bursting at the seams just from baby stuff. My parents were back in Australia and I wanted our children growing up here.” In 2003 Kumar returned to Melbourne, close to his family and beloved Hawks AFL club.

Now he loves music, travel, skiing and football, but most of his non-work time is spent “chasing my three kids around. There’s a lot of sport to take them to”.

Despite being back on home turf, he found fitting back into the practice difficult. “Leaving the amazing opportunity that is the US market and coming back here after eight years was hard. I had to reintegrate back into the firm. I was an unknown.”

He was always a bit more creative and innovative than the average partner was at that time
Dennis Finn Former head of consulting at PWC

This state of affairs was not to last long. In 2004 experienced management consultant Dennis Finn joined the firm to put pedal to the metal of PwC’s consulting business. Kumar had been involved in the firm’s embryonic consulting arm, and Finn chose him to take charge of the customer stream, nutting out how their clients could best serve their customers. “It became obvious to me that because of Sammy’s passion for the customer and the clients ... he would be the guy to lead the customer segment,” recounts Finn, who would go on to head Worley Parsons’ global advisory business, Advisian. He calls Kumar “a massive player” in the customer role and “critical to its success”.

New to the ways of PwC but an old hand at consulting, Finn was quick to note how effective a bridge Kumar was between the firm's old guard and new emerging talent. “He was a voice for the young and older firm members, particularly the young, and big supporter of change. He helped me crack the story of the consulting practice. Probably one of his biggest strengths was that he was always had new ideas and was very perceptive and intuitive. He was always a bit more creative and innovative than the average partner was at that time. He’s always been a little edgier in pushing the partnership to be more dynamic and forward thinking.”

When Finn moved to New York to become PwC’s global human capital leader, he kept his eye on Kumar, noting that he was a great asset to incoming CEO Luke Sayers. He says Kumar’s affinity with people has always an been important quality in consulting, but is particularly important now. “PwC, as with other consulting firms, don’t sell widgets or products. There’s nothing physical you can put your hands on, so you just have to have creative environments filled with great leaders who build great cultures where people want to have fun and do great things. The leaders that can do that tend to win.”

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Jacqueline Blondell is a Melbourne-based writer. She is a former editorial director for Hardie Grant and has edited magazines for AHRI, AIM and ANZ, among others.

Picture credit: Pat Scala / Fairfax

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