January 28, 2013 12:00 am

Interview: Deloitte deputy chief executive Brian Derksen

Brian L. Derksen, deputy chief executive officer of DTTL at the Deloitte headquarters in New York©Pascal Perich

The bottom line: Derksen, a member of Fuqua’s advisory board, believes the value of a degree from a top business school still holds

There are no hockey sticks, sports jerseys or helmets in the office of Brian Derksen, deputy chief executive of accounting and consultancy giant Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. If you happened to wander into that office, on the 42nd floor of the GE building – the iconic centrepiece of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center – you would never guess that Derksen started his professional life as a minor league ice hockey player.

“I wasn’t known as a finesse player. I was more of the bruiser kind of guy,” he says, grinning, of his years with the Saskatoon Blades in his native Canada, and then the Greensboro Generals in North Carolina in the US.

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IN MBA

It was in Durham, North Carolina, that Derksen made the rather startling leap from ice hockey to accounting, via an MBA from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Now, amid the sombre grey tones of his New York office, Derksen, 61, is every inch the polished corporate executive. As deputy chief executive of DTTL, the parent company of an array of Deloitte-branded audit, consulting, advisory and tax subsidiaries, he has to be.

“There are a lot of things which require a CEO’s attention but he [Barry Salzberg] can’t get to it. I operate sort of as his alter ego,” explains Derksen.

In hindsight, it seems fitting that the small-town Canadian who would go on to become the second in command of a company with British, American and Japanese roots should have chosen the Fuqua School of Business to make his transition.

The institution bills itself as the “first truly global business school” thanks to a network of offices around the world including locations in Dubai, St Petersburg, London, New Delhi and Johannesburg.

“We not only teach in those regions, but we also bring the knowledge learnt from the region back to our home campus,” says a Fuqua spokesman.

Back in 1976, when Derksen began his MBA, the school’s international ambitions were much less formalised. But, he says, there was already a global flavour to the campus, through the school’s large international student body.

“They’ve always been a leader in terms of the student population they bring to Durham,” he says.

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For an ex-hockey player with little background in the business world and an unorthodox undergraduate experience (Derksen completed his bachelors in mathematics in between hockey seasons), that student population could sometimes be intimidating.

“I had a very disjointed undergraduate career,” he says. “[Fuqua] was an environment where there were people who knew way more about business than I did.”

But it was at Fuqua that Derksen found a way to translate his love of mathematics into a career in accounting, beginning as an auditor in Deloitte’s Denver offices. He moved to New York to work on mergers and acquisitions advisory before relocating to Dallas, Texas, to eventually head the office’s tax practice.

From there, Derksen was nominated to DTTL’s US board of directors, after being called in to comment on developments at the company. “I went in there and I complained about management and they almost came back and said if you’re going to be so outspoken maybe you should be on the board,” he explains.

The position on the US board, soon followed by a spot on DTTL’s global board, helped boost Derksen to the top tier of Deloitte’s management. As deputy chief executive, he finds himself switching continents and business lines on a frequent basis. It is no small task. By any measure Deloitte’s corporate structure is daunting, with a multitude of distinct legal entities and fingers in many professional and geographic pies.

Since 2001, Derksen has commuted between Dallas, where he lives with his wife of 37 years, and midtown New York. So intense is his day-to-day travel that he has racked up 10m miles on American Airlines – passing the frequent flyer milestone made famous in the 2009 George Clooney film Up in the Air.

Working across cities and borders is not without its challenges. In December, for instance, the work of Deloitte’s Chinese auditing affiliate was suddenly thrown under the regulatory spotlight. The affiliate was targeted in legal action by a US regulator after allegedly refusing to produce audit papers related to nine Chinese companies under investigation for potential accounting fraud against US investors. Affiliates of four other big auditing firms faced similar action.

It was just one reminder of the difficulty of running a global business in a world where many rules are still implemented and enforced along national lines. Efforts to align US accounting standards with inter­national ones – so-called “accounting convergence” – is another.

“It’s evolved tremendously,” says Derksen, who used his accounting course at Fuqua to become a certified public accountant. The profession used to be “driven by a simpler set of accounts. There wasn’t the global economics, there weren’t derivatives.”

. . .

The world of business degrees has become more complicated too. Applications for MBAs are down overall and fees are up. At Fuqua, for instance, a two-year MBA now costs $105,800 – more than 10 times the $10,000 Derksen paid for his two-year degree in the 1970s.

“It wasn’t long ago that there was a smaller number of schools that did MBAs. Now the MBA degree is available everywhere from many different calibres of schools,” he says. “If your value is only recognised locally, then by definition, that challenges the economic model [of an MBA] a little bit more.”

But according to Derksen, also a member of Fuqua’s advisory board, the value of a degree from a top business school still holds. Deloitte hires 17,000 people a year in the US – and it hires more Fuqua graduates than any other firm.

“MBAs are still very valuable to us,” says Derksen, especially for the consulting business. “The MBA students have been in the workforce generally, which has given them a broad base of experience. Now they go on and get layered on to them a whole new academic outlook.”

However, in Derksen’s view even top schools still need to tweak their curriculums to deal with rapidly changing realities in the business world – from new technologies to the shifting structure of the global economy.

“Technology-based disruption on business models is increasing and undoubtedly will have a significant impact on most industries and professions, including our own, in the coming years,” he says.

“Rather than being a subject of separate study, it may need to be embedded throughout the curriculum similar to how it is becoming embedded in all aspects of business. Business disruption will have to impact how business is taught.”

For its part, Duke University has gone into partnership with China’s Wuhan University to build a 200-acre campus in Kunshan, a fast-growing satellite city just outside Shanghai. Classes are expected to begin in the next academic year, and the facility will become a new Chinese base for some of Fuqua’s MBA degrees.

“The thing that tells me [Fuqua] understands the way the world has changed is that they’re no longer content to be the top school in the States,” says Derksen.

He may have traded his ice-hockey gloves for tailor-made suits, but the old competitiveness still remains.

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