Former CEO & Chairman of the Board, Deloitte, Haskins, & Sells
From a Dust Bowl Farm to Midtown Manhattan
Charles Steele grew up on farm in South Dakota in the midst of the Great Depression dust bowls. Today, Charles G. Steele is retired from a career that was far greater than anything he had imagined possible. Of the thousands of Golden Gate University accounting alumni, Charles Steele can easily be described as one of our school’s most successful and prominent graduates.
From the small one-room school house of his youth to high school Faulkton, South Dakota, Charles never would have dreamed of the success he enjoyed. Even college was a stretch for the son of a father and mother who had completed the 6th and 8th grades, respectively. After graduating high school in 1943, Charles entered the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. By the time he'd earned his wings, the war was nearly over. He stayed in the Navy for an additional two years and was stationed onboard aircraft carriers. The end result of having served in the Navy was that Steele, like many of his generation, was provided with the GI bill.
After taking an aptitude test, Charles decided to pursue a degree as a CPA. When his counselor gave him choices of schools to attend, Steele chose Golden Gate, which had a comprehensive accounting program at the undergraduate level. His competitive drive and hard work resulted in excellent grades and an opportunity that few students enjoyed. “At that time,” says Steele, “classes at Golden Gate were all taught in the mornings so you could work a half day in the afternoons. With the GI bill and my wife Shirley taking care of me, I didn’t work in the afternoons. I studied instead; studied hard.”
Steele, in effect, became his fellow students’ coach when it came time to prepare for exams. “I conducted review sessions for my friends and I got some experience at teaching through that process.” Later, Steele would teach accounting courses at GGU for five years, making the transition from student to teacher shortly after graduating.
When a student completes the accounting degree, the next logical step is to prepare for the CPA examination. Steele had already been thinking and strategizing how and when to ready himself for this next challenge. He recalls, “Dean Kelly, the dean of the business school and the accounting graduate program, told me that California gives a gold medal, called the Forbes Medal, to the person who gets the highest grade on the CPA exam. The dean said, ‘I think you would have a good opportunity to win that if you went through our graduate program first before you took the exam. And, winning the Forbes Medal would stand you in extremely good stead for employment.’”
Charles took the CPA exam before finishing the first semester of Golden Gate University’s graduate program in accounting. His results were spectacular: he earned the highest score in the entire United States on the 1951 CPA exam in a field of 10,000 exam takers. He won the Elijah Watts Sells Medal, in honor of one of the founders of Haskins & Sells. That firm, one of the Big 8 accounting firms in the U.S., would have a prominent role in Steele’s future.
Shirley was pregnant at the time and they did not have money for a fancy celebration, but the Golden Gate University accounting fraternity threw CHARLIE STEELE NIGHT, which was dinner and cocktails at a San Francisco restaurant. The guest speaker was Paul Webster, who at that time was the partner-in-charge of the San Francisco office of Haskins & Sells.
Charles decided to tackle the final semester of coursework for his master’s degree during his first year of employment in an accounting firm. So he started teaching accounting courses in the evenings at Golden Gate. He recalls, “Originally I taught advanced accounting and then later intermediate accounting.” The schedule was demanding and he had many late nights in his five years as a faculty member. “I would go to Golden Gate one night a week as a student and I’d teach one night a week. In those days, we were living in Palo Alto, so I would catch the 10 o’clock train home to arrive home at 11 PM to get ready for the next day.” It was not only Golden Gate that kept Steele busy in the evenings. “In addition to those two nights, I would have at least one night per week either in professional activities or night training within the firm, so I was basically getting home at 11:15 p.m. three nights a week.”
After finishing his degree, Haskins & Sells moved him around: he spent three years working in-house in Detroit on an assignment at General Motors, followed by a year working on projects in the firm's executive office in New York. In 1962, he finally returned to San Francisco, and within a year had become a partner. After years of success, Haskins & Sells asked him to move again, this time to Chicago. He was there from 1972 to 1976, and “doubled the volume of business, quadrupled the profit, and improved the quality and morale of the staff substantially.”
His successes were recognized and rewarded. “I was asked to move to New York to get ready to take over the senior position of the firm two years later.” He became the partner-in-charge of personnel nationally for that intervening two years. Steele was head of the firm for eight years, from 1978 to 1986.
Charles also served on two presidential commissions. Under President Reagan, on the Commission on Executive Interchange and under Carter, on price controls.
The legacy that Steele left at Deloitte is memorialized on the firm’s current website. It summarizes his tenure as Chairman of the firm by describing the transition from separate, local firms scattered around the world to a global organization, saying “Steele united the various groups into a powerful and focused organization.”