What was different was how he leaned on his experience at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, where he had worked for nearly three years, starting after he completed his Rhodes Scholarship in the summer of 2007.
“I am the only candidate with experience working on billion-dollar decisions, helping to turn around major companies around the country and around the world,” Buttigieg said then. “I am the only candidate who has, not only a great degree in economics, but on-the-ground experience doing economic development in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the world: Baghdad, Kabul, Jalalabad.”
A review of speeches and interviews that Buttigieg gave when he first pursued public office in Indiana shows that he consistently played up his McKinsey experience, touting work advising “senior decision-makers” and claiming he was “part of billion-dollar decisions made by Fortune 500 companies.”
By contrast, in his presidential campaign Buttigieg and his aides have sought to minimize his responsibilities at the consulting firm, even suggesting he spent most of his first McKinsey project learning how to use software.
Earlier this month, Buttigieg, now 37, released a list of his McKinsey clients, under pressure from some of his Democratic opponents. Nowhere in the release was any mention of helping turn around Fortune 500 companies or advising senior decision-makers.
“I released a summary of my work at McKinsey even though it was my first job out of school where I had little decision making authority,” he wrote Dec. 10 in a Medium post.
Buttigieg has since tried to distance himself from McKinsey further, calling recent reports that the firm recommended cuts at Immigration and Customs Enforcement “disgusting.”
As he campaigns, Buttigieg rarely mentions his consulting career, partly a reflection of how his intended audience has changed: In a crowded Democratic primary race steeped in populism — in which job losses and income inequality are central issues — it can be galling to remind voters of working for an elite consultancy whose reputation rests on helping corporations become more efficient.
A decade ago, however, Buttigieg’s characterization of his McKinsey projects lent a worldly sheen to someone whose working resume was otherwise pretty bare. It was one thing to be three years out of college seeking to turn around a state and later a city — quite another to give the impression those three years had been spent trekking the globe to stabilize economies.
Buttigieg’s first try at elective office occurred in 2010, when he left McKinsey to run for Indiana state treasurer. At a candidate forum in September of that year, Buttigieg jokingly told the audience — composed of members from a tea party-affiliated group called Citizens for Common Sense — that someone had “made a mistake” and given him a Rhodes Scholarship, which he used to go abroad and learn about economics. Then he returned to the United States and “went into business,” he said, referring to his stint at McKinsey.
“I did math for a living around economics: the economics of energy, and the economics of stabilizing very tough places around the world in order to make sure there’s less violence there,” Buttigieg said at the group’s Meet the Candidates Night. “But I got to thinking, ‘If I’m any good at stabilizing economies, maybe I ought to try to help stabilize the economy right here in Indiana.’ And so the premise of my campaign is the State Treasurer’s office could be doing more to help our economic life.”
He repeated those points a month later in an interview with a community website called AroundFortWayne.com, saying he had been a “businessman from northern Indiana” who would visit “distressed areas around the world and try to shore up the private sector.”
Buttigieg ultimately lost the treasurer’s race, the one time he ran for statewide office, to incumbent Richard Mourdock by more than 20 points — as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) pointedly mentioned on the debate stage Dec. 19. (Mourdock made national headlines two years later when he suggested pregnancy resulting from rape was “something that God intended to happen.”)
About a month after his loss to Mourdock, Buttigieg decided to run for mayor of his hometown, South Bend. During that campaign, he continued to play up his McKinsey work, but began noting that he had been “part of billion-dollar decisions made by Fortune 500 companies,” starting in his announcement speech.
Unlike in his state treasurer run, Buttigieg also highlighted that he had “worked in business as an adviser to senior decision-makers, helping to turn their companies around and create jobs,” as he told WNIT Public Television in April 2011.
At a March 2011 forum for mayoral candidates hosted by the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce, Buttigieg touted his “rich background” in economics.
“Well, the main reason that I’m running — and I know this sounds a little funny coming from the youngest candidate . . . but the main reason is my experience,” Buttigieg said then. “I think I’m the only candidate who has an economics degree. I’m pretty sure I’m the only candidate who’s been part of billion-dollar decisions made by Fortune 500 companies. I’m the only candidate who’s done economic development for a living.”
At the same event, Buttigieg boasted he had been “dealing with large budgets all the time, often multibillion-dollar budgets in the private sector.” It was that background, “where we often had to make tough decisions on extraordinarily big budgets” that he said would be most useful to him if elected mayor.
Buttigieg did not offer details then on the companies he consulted for while at McKinsey. But he hinted at one of them — Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan — when he spoke about budget redundancies at an unnamed insurance firm.
(Other clients, he said earlier this month, included the Canadian supermarket Loblaws, Best Buy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Energy Department, the Defense Department and the U.S. Postal Service. Only Best Buy and George Weston Limited, which operates Loblaws as a subsidiary, were Fortune 500 companies.)
“We do need to reimagine our budget for the bottom line. One of the things I did for a living was just that,” Buttigieg said at the 2011 Chamber of Commerce forum when asked about a potential audit of city employees. “So I remember one client organization that was a large insurance firm that had grown in such a way that there was a great deal of duplication, and some people didn’t even know what the people working for them were doing.”
More than eight years later, when Buttigieg was freed from his nondisclosure agreement with McKinsey and could disclose the names of his clients, his characterization of the Blue Cross work was more benign than his earlier suggestion of job cuts: His campaign said he had analyzed “overhead expenditures such as rent, travel costs and utilities” and “wasn’t a part of any decision making or in charge of making recommendations.”
As for the Chamber of Commerce video in which Buttigieg mentioned duplications in the workforce, the campaign said he was merely sharing “an observation about what large organizations like a city or an insurance company face.”
Buttigieg and his aides have emphasized that his time at McKinsey after graduate school was spent in a junior role and taken “right after college.”
“This was my first job out of school. It’s not like I was the CEO,” Buttigieg said in an interview conducted by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Dec. 5. “I was making a lot of spreadsheets and PowerPoints.”
In a Dec. 10 interview with the Atlantic, Buttigieg painted a picture of himself as a low-level employee locked in a room with a computer, who not only was removed from decision-making power but often didn’t talk to his clients’ employees or know the outcomes of his projects.
When asked if his work had led to job losses at Blue Cross Blue Shield, Buttigieg told the magazine: “I don’t know what the conclusions were or what it led to. So it’s tough for me to say.”
Whether Buttigieg’s experience at McKinsey was as expansive as he once claimed or as limited as he now contends, his rhetoric about his background helped persuade influential people during his Indiana political campaigns.
In October 2010, the South Bend Tribune endorsed Buttigieg in the treasurer’s race, calling him a “rising star in Indiana politics” who had “worked as a consultant to help stabilize economies in troubled areas of the world.”
The following year, the South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce brushed aside Buttigieg’s lack of experience and became one of the first organizations to endorse him in what became a five-person mayoral primary.
The group described Buttigieg as having been responsible for “advising senior business and government leaders on major decisions related to economic development, energy policy, strategic business initiatives and logistics.”
“He was kind of an unknown but, in all of our interviews, he really impressed our business community,” South Bend Regional Chamber of Commerce President Jeff Rea told The Washington Post in April, when asked about first meeting Buttigieg more than a decade ago.
After receiving the group’s blessing, Buttigieg did not shy away from once again emphasizing the experience that he felt would make him the best mayor.
“I have the most experience when it comes to business and economics,” Buttigieg told the South Bend Tribune in an Apr. 1, 2011 article about the chamber’s endorsement. “I’m the only candidate who has been involved in multibillion dollar decisions in the private sector, with some of the world’s top firms.”