By Tom Hanlon
Carl Allegretti thought he had life all figured out as a high school senior in Gary, Indiana: He’d go to work in the steel mills, like most of his friends were doing. After a summer of working in the blast furnace of a mill, however, Allegretti decided a change was in order.
Hey, Dad,” he said one day in August after another hot day at the mill. “Can we revisit this college thing?”
They did, and Allegretti ended up at Butler University – a big change in his plans, and one for the better.
Allegretti, Deloitte Tax LLP chairman and chief executive officer, spoke recently to students at a Department of Accountancy Lyceum. And he talked primarily about change.
Change: The One Constant
“There is constant change in our world,” he said. “Hang on tight, because it’s going faster and faster. Those who are successful in life are those who are receptive to change.”
Allegretti spoke of the change from the Big Eight to the Big Four accounting firms, and of changes in the regulatory environment, the tax landscape, in technology, and in the economy.
“This recession changed the landscape of business across this country and across the globe,” he said. “I’m very bullish on America. I travel across the US and the clients and companies I talk to, American companies are very strong. We’re on the verge of having a robust economy. We’re waiting for stability.”
Allegretti chuckled as he told students stories that they likely had difficulty comprehending: a work desk without a computer, penciling in tax returns, and cellphones that were “basically like a brick. A brick that cost a thousand dollars. And it would last for 45 minutes.”
Allegretti noted that while things have moved “incredibly quickly” over the last 10 years, he expected them to move even faster over the next 5 years.
“The one constant in our profession is change,” he said. “Accept it, and be on the leading edge of it.”
Allegretti said that while many shrink back from change, leaders and entrepreneurs embrace it. Speaking of the current recession, he said, “Traditionally new industries come out of recessions. The auto industry boomed after the Great Depression. In the ‘70s, after the recession, we had two companies that came out: Apple and Microsoft. We need to be nimble. Try to take a big organization and help them be proactive.”
Preparing for Change
When asked how accountants should prepare for change, Allegretti responded, “You can never plan for all change. There are so many things that can happen.” He related the story of the downfall of Arthur Andersen, where he was a partner until its demise in 2002.
“No one could have anticipated that change that we had to deal with,” Allegretti said. “So there’s some change you just can’t prepare for. You just have to accept it and move forward. Don’t look back and say what if. Move forward.”
But there are some sorts of transformations that you can prepare for, he added.
“Preparing for change such as tax reform means getting the facts, understanding your client’s situation, understanding what the scenarios are related to tax reform,” he said. “You get the information to make the best possible decision to understand what the change could be, to understand what your client wants, to understand how it impacts their business, and you make what you believe is the best business decision.”
There are no guarantees, he added – “But if you wait to understand exactly what the change is, it’s too late.”
Building Your Career
Allegretti then shifted gears and spoke about what accountants need to build a successful career.
“First,” he said, “you need passion. I love my job. I love what I do. Embrace whatever you do with passion. Passion is contagious. People will want to be part of that passion.”
You have to focus, he said, on what’s most important to you. Choose your three or four most important things and, if necessary, cut other things out. “I gave up golf,” he said. “I did not have time. Some people say I improved the game of golf by giving it up,” he joked.
The three things that are most important to him are his family, his work, and his health. He hasn’t missed a day of working out in nearly two years, and his two sons had 47 wrestling matches last year – none of which he missed, though he is on the road 48 weeks a year. “It makes for a lot of crazy flights, but it’s worth it,” he said. He also made it to all of their football games.
“My alarm clock goes off at 3:30 every morning,” he said. “Do I get tired? Yes. But I carve out my time for my family and for working out.” He noted that he recently ran his 67th marathon, for a charity event for Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
“Get involved in your community,” he urged the students. “Give back to your community. Give back to this institution. Never forget where you came from.”
Another key to a successful career is building relationships with clients.
“This is a relationship business,” he said. “Business is about relationships. Whether it’s public accounting or sales or anything else, relationship is key. If you have good relationships, it will help you deal with any problem. And in business, problems pop up. If you have a relationship with your client, you can work through it.”
He warned that those relationships don’t mean you are friends with your clients.
“A wise person told me one time, leave no doubt, your clients are not your friends,” Allegretti said. “You want to have a great relationship, but it is still business. You need to treat that relationship with respect. Business is business.”
“And never take that relationship for granted. Constantly focus on delivering and making the client look good. Stay one step ahead and make them look good to their boss, to their board. That’s what will drive the relationship. You’re not going to have a successful client relationship if all you do is buy them meals and entertain them. That’ll come and go. But if you constantly add value to that relationship, then they will not do a thing without talking to you. That’s what you want.”
Allegretti delivered some final words of encouragement to the students.
“Stay connected with each other,” he advised. “You will all be successful. There are going to be a lot of opportunities for you to one day work together. And the ability through technology to stay connected is incredible. So do not let that opportunity pass you by.”
He also urged students to build relationships within their organization, to build strong teams under them, and to help their peers.
“If you want somebody to help you, the first thing you should do is help them. Because 9 out of 10 times people will pay that favor back. Build your team and build your relationships.”
As for the constant change that goes on in the profession and the world, he said, “Change is really good. It may be hard, but you have to accept change and embrace it. And when you’re in a leadership position, drive that change. Never be satisfied. Look to grow wherever you are.”
Allegretti has grown considerably from his days in the Gary steel mills. And it’s likely that the one thing that hasn’t changed – his roll-up-your-sleeves, blue-collar work ethic – has helped him succeed in an ever-changing world.