During his teen years, Joe Echevarria says that he wanted to get as far away from his South Bronx neighborhood as he could. When it was time to choose a college, Mr. Echevarria opted for University of Miami, which he attended on scholarship.
These days, Echevarria is back in New York—but he is worlds away from where he began: The 54-year-old took the helm at Deloitte LLP in June.
The CEO still has pressing matters on his mind. As the largest professional services firm in the world by revenue, Deloitte specializes in tax, audit, consulting and advisory businesses—areas that clients cut back on during the last recession.
Deloitte's revenue for fiscal-year 2010, which ended last June, was $10.9 billion. In its 2008 fiscal year revenue hit a little over $11 billion. The closely held company hasn't yet released 2011 figures.
Echevarria, whose start in accounting involved fetching mail and coffee, still comes across as a neighborhood guy, with a hint of a Bronx accent behind his polished corporate speak.
He lives by a "three-feet rule," he says, making a practice of introducing himself and striking up a conversation with anyone who comes within three feet. "The culture is terrific, my only desire is to make it more approachable," Echevarria says.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal at the company's New York headquarters last week, Echevarria spoke about the economic climate, Deloitte's buttoned-up culture and his rise up the corporate ladder.
Dana Mattioli: You followed an interesting path to the top at Deloitte. What attracted you to accounting?
JM: I worked at a gas station in the Bronx and there was somebody there who was an accountant. What stood out to me was I worked all day and I was making whatever minimum wage was at the time. The accountant came into the gas station once a month, did something, and walked out with a lot more money than I made in a week. I didn't quite understand accounting, but I understood it was an opportunity to perhaps do something different and escape from the poverty I grew up in as a kid.
DM:What were your early days at Deloitte like?
JE: After college, I started at Haskins & Sells, the predecessor to Deloitte. I started in the audit practice. All the tasks were hierarchical in those days, so you had to work your way up. We weren't in an environment where everything is electronic. We had to get mail. It didn't just come over some laptop. So guess who got those responsibilities? There wasn't a Starbucks on every corner.
DM:You're approaching your first 100 days as CEO. What goals have you been able to accomplish?
JE: One of the goals we're beginning to accomplish is having a conversation. We opened up a communication vehicle with our partners and our directors that I call Social CEO. It gets the partners to engage, open dialogue, ask survey questions and ask questions of me or others. I get every comment. It's about coming up with lots of ideas and how to better direct our recruiting resources.
DM: Many companies are being conservative about hiring, given the bleak economic outlook. What are Deloitte's plans?
JE: We're going to hire 18,000 people this [fiscal] year across all of our businesses. Plus, we're opening Deloitte University in Texas in October. That's a $300 million commitment to learning and development of our people that we're making.
DM: Companies are starting to make layoffs again and cut back on spending. In the last recession, one of the first cuts businesses made was to services. How are you planning around the possibility of that happening again?
JE: Once upon a time there was a view that there would be a rebound. I would say now the probabilities of a rebound are diminishing and the probability of a double dip is increasing. We have a set of plans that we would undertake for any of those scenarios. This isn't new for us.
DM: What would you do in the event of a double dip?
JE: We have a broad degree of options. The first thing is we look at the costs that we incur and how much ahead we're hiring. Maybe 18,000 [new hires] becomes 17,000.
DM: During the last recession, Deloitte and your competitors cut rates. Are you feeling those pressures now?
JE: No. The marketplace hasn't really demanded it. What really drives rates is clients. They have their own pressures. We're in it for long-term relationships.
This story originally appeared on WSJ.com