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In the summer of 1997, when Price Waterhouse set its sights on merging with Coopers & Lybrand, Willard Brittain suspected that prospect would make the next year of his life like no other. He was right on the money.
As senior vice chairman at Price Waterhouse, Brittain was already a globe-trotter. His domain included offices in 138 countries and 65,000 employees who looked to him for guidance in the firm’s specialty areas of audit, tax, finance, management consulting and outsourcing. Now, with a mega-merger behind him and PricewaterhouseCoopers reigning as the biggest kid on the block, Brittain is only half joking when he remarks, “I had to add new pages to my passport.”
Although the merger occurred last July, Brittain’s work actually began years earlier. A 24-year veteran of Price Waterhouse, Brittain served on the task force that concocted the merger idea. In a multibillion-dollar industry where bean-counting had evolved into high-profit management advice, Price Waterhouse was ranked in size at the bottom of accounting’s Big Six. “We needed to provide clients with a broader range of services,” says the 51-year-old Brittain.
Although other firms were considered for a merger, Coopers & Lybrand had a similar corporate culture as well as complementary services and geographic strengths. Price Waterhouse brought power with its media, entertainment and IT expertise; Coopers & Lybrand anted up consulting strength in telecommunications and human resources. Although both were global, Price Waterhouse was stronger in Latin America, while Coopers & Lybrand dominated in Japan and Europe.
On the combined global leadership team that led the merger, Brittain, then point man for all of Price Waterhouse’s P&Ls, held the responsibility of orchestrating the merger at all levels. “We established a shared vision and common values, then applied those worldwide,” he says.
Having offices in 138 countries made things complex. “Each country is autonomous in its partnership,” he explains, adding that each national office had a choice of whether to buy in. Brittain spent the year hopping from country to country, negotiating with thousands of partners. “It made for some very long days,” he says. Everything from how to meld systems and methodologies to corporate governance had to be negotiated.
When he wasn’t traveling, Brittain assisted in revamping business plans, strategies and logistics. When the merger became official last summer, laying the groundwork paid off. The integration was practically seamless. Overnight, the Big Six became the Big Five, and a new global identity was born. PricewaterhouseCoopers-with $15 billion in revenue and 140,000 employees-became the world’s largest professional services firm.
“It’s too early to tell much about the success of the merger. But now two firms that were once niche players amongst the Big Six have become kingpins of the Big Five,” says Art Bowman, editor of Bowman’s Accounting Report in Atlanta. “Together, they have the resources that alone they didn’t have. When it comes to global practice-they are now ahead of the competition.”
Rising to the challenge is something Brittain knows about. Armed with a B.A. in economics from Yale and an M.B.A. from Harvard, Brittain