Esprit de Corps and Transcendent Organizational Behavior
The Role of Athletics in Haskins & Sells’ Corporate Culture

By Mark E. Jobe and Dale L. Flesher

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APRIL 2005 - Charles Waldo Haskins and Elijah Watt Sells first met in 1893 when they were selected to work as expert accountants on behalf of the Dockery Commission in Washington, D.C. The commission, named for Representative Alexander M. Dockery, was created by an act of the 53rd Congress to “examine the status of the laws organizing the Executive Department, Bureaus, Divisions, and other Government Establishments at the National Capital” in order to “secure greater efficiency and economy.” Haskins and Sells had backgrounds in the railroad industry as well as extensive experience in establishing accounting systems and internal auditing procedures. Based on their recommendations, new systems of accounting and auditing procedures were installed in various government departments, resulting in annual savings of $600,000. On March 4, 1895, following their successful collaboration for the Dockery Commission, the two men founded the public accounting firm Haskins & Sells.

In 1896, Haskins, a native of Brooklyn, promoted the passage of legislation in New York State that regulated public accountants in the state and created the official designation “Certified Public Accountant.” In 1897, Haskins was elected the first president of the NYSSCPA, an office he held until his death in 1903. In 1900, he was instrumental in establishing the School of Commerce, Accounts and Finance, at New York University, and served as its first dean.

Sells served as president of the American Association of Public Accountants in 1906 and 1907 and was involved in establishing the American Institute of Accountants. In 1923, Sells was honored by having an accounting award named for him, the Elijah Watt Sells Award, given semiannually by the AICPA to the highest-scoring candidate on the CPA examination.

The Importance of Recreation

In 1902, Sells purchased a farm in northern Westchester County, 35 miles from New York City. With his tennis and horseback-riding hobbies in mind, he had stables built for the horses and a tennis court constructed on the self-sustaining farm, named North Castle. Products of the farm included fruits and vegetables, flour and cornmeal, bacon, hams, and fowls. According to the book that Sells sponsored about the farm, A Land-Lover and His Land, Sells chose to give away the farm’s excess products rather than sell them.

North Castle was profitable for Sells on several levels. According to a firm history that Haskins and Sells coauthored, included in Haskins & Sells: Our First Seventy-Five Years, 1895–1970, “[Sells] often stated that his best ideas in accountancy and organization came to him as he was ‘stumbling around’ in the woods.” John R. Wildman verified this in the preface of The Natural Business Year and Thirteen Other Themes (A.W. Shaw Co., 1924), which quotes Sells as saying that the development of one paper, “Corporate Management Compared with Government Control,” occurred while “stumbling around in the woods near his farm.” Wildman added, “Much of the other material was the result of the same process and represents, in the main, the product of mental recreation pertinent to a mind made clear and strong by outdoor life and exercise.”

Sells was not alone in his pursuit of outdoor exercise. Robert Montgomery’s book Fifty Years of Accountancy (Ronald Press Co., 1939) had a chapter titled “Any Decent Hobby Will Add Ten Years to Your Life if You Have Any Use for Ten Years More.” Montgomery said, “Any hobby, even a poor one, will add years to one’s life. A hobby which takes one out of doors, if taken cheerfully at any time before fifty, will add at least ten years. Obviously, I recommend the out-of-doors type.” He added, “If a business or professional man does not have a hobby, he should not retire. If he does retire, the usual result is early death. If a man has the right kind of hobby, he can retire at any time and count on living indefinitely.”

Haskins & Sells’ Baseball Team

The book Athletics In Accountancy (Safety Systems Company, 1908), a rare copy of which is in the National Library of the Accounting Profession on the University of Mississippi campus, highlights the formation, successes, and failures of the Haskins & Sells baseball team during its inaugural year of 1907. In the foreword, Sells wrote:

The success of the “H. & S. Athletic Association” during its first season was so striking, not only from the point of view of the pleasure and health of those concerned, but in the increase of good fellowship which it gave to all of us, that I have gratified my desire, through this means, to provide a permanent record of the leading features.

Athletics In Accountancy serves an additional purpose that Sells probably did not anticipate: It provides a record of the firm’s values and culture as handed down over time.

Although the author of Athletics In Accountancy remains anonymous, the Deloitte website (www.deloitte.com) attributes authorship to Sells himself, stating that, “Sells was deeply involved in all aspects of Haskins & Sells, including its firm-sponsored sporting endeavors, about which he wrote a monograph.” If the reference is to some other book, then that book and any other references to it have been lost. No other work on the firm’s sporting endeavors has been found.

Although the University of Mississippi library database lists Sells as the author of Athletics In Accountancy, and some individuals advance Sells as the author, internal evidence does not necessarily support this claim. For Sells’ modesty to prevent him from claiming authorship is illogical when a passage concerning an earlier baseball club upon which Sells had played reads as follows: “‘I do not recall, however,’ he added, ‘that I caught a ball or made a run’—a statement which caused the members of the team to suspect—after Mr. Sells’ achievements on the diamond later in the season—either that his modesty was far above, or his memory far below, the normal average.” A modest man would not boast of his modesty being far above average; thus Sells would seem not to be the author, and it would not have been the first time he employed an outside author. In 1909, Sells employed Martha McCulloch-Williams to write A Land-Lover and His Land. Regardless of Athletics In Accountancy’s authorship, Sells undoubtedly sponsored and supported the book.

In 1907, Haskins & Sells had five partners (Sells, Charles S. Ludlam, Homer A. Dunn, T. Finley Wharton, and DeRoy S. Fero) and more than 100 employees in New York City, Chicago, London, St. Louis, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh. The formation of the firm’s baseball team was first mentioned in a June 1907 office memorandum titled “Athletic Bulletin No. 1.” This bulletin listed 33 firm members that had organized a baseball team and invited “All those who desire to become members” to submit applications to J.S. Mitchell, S.A.M. (Self-Appointed Manager). Sells, who was called the team president, approved, and made a substantial donation to help meet team expenses. He likewise gave assurances that the other partners would make similar donations. According to the published history, the justification for a sponsored team was as follows:

Of the various sorts of workers in this sophisticated modern Babel few, certainly, more acutely need the rest and refreshment that comes from enjoyable out-of-door exercise than those engaged in the profession of accountancy. This work requires intense concentration…. No human … can long continue completely absorbed in such work without losing in practical effectiveness. Mere business sense, aside from any questions of health and pleasure, demands that the worker have a reasonable amount of rest and diversion.

Internal evidence suggests that during its first season four partners (Sells, Ludlam, Fero, and Dunn) played on the team at one time or another. “Athletic Bulletin No. 2,” dated June 19, announced that the first game would be played on June 22. Each player was expected to buy his own cleats and contribute one dollar for every game he played. The club furnished all other items. In mid-July officers were appointed, uniforms were provided, and the required one-dollar entrance fee for players was eliminated. “Athletic Bulletin No. 3” announced a challenge that had been received from the accounting department of the Royal Baking Powder Company, a client, for a game to be played on July 27.

“S.A.M.” Mitchell urged all staff members to attend for the purposes of rooting and to substitute for injured or tired players. Mitchell further appealed to his colleagues’ professional side: “The Royal Baking Powder Company is a client of Haskins & Sells and we desire to make a careful analysis of their pitcher’s curves, segregated as to home runs, three-baggers, two-base hits and safeties only.”

The First Games

Spring training started late. Interoffice games served as excellent practice for the players, who had just over a month to prepare for their contest against Royal Baking Powder. In the first outing of the season, one team’s captain, partner DeRoy Fero, distinguished himself by striking out 12 men. Frederick Albert Cleveland, then a staff accountant but renowned today for introducing a comprehensive governmental accounting system, was hit by a pitch. Mitchell struck out eight batters, but the final score was 26–9 in favor of Fero’s team. On July 4, these teams met again with similar results: Fero’s team won 20–14. The third interoffice game was on July 20. Mitchell’s team, by this time appropriately named “The Lemons,” regained a measure of respect by defeating Fero’s team, “The Blues,” 14–12.

The highly anticipated game with the Royal Baking Powder Nine took place on July 27. Haskins & Sells carried the day, winning 24–13. In the next game, on August 10, a team made up of men employed on Sells’ farm defeated the Haskins & Sells team 17–2. After this setback, the Haskins & Sells team quickly began dominating their opponents, winning the next four games. Finally, on September 28, at a much-anticipated rematch, the Haskins & Sells team triumphed over the Farmers 7–4. The Farmers declared that “only a conspiracy and the most abandoned behavior on the part of the Umpire, audience, and opponents was responsible for the result.” Following a one-run loss to Haskins & Sells on September 7, the United States Mortgage & Trust Company team was looking for revenge in a rematch slated for October 12. Nevertheless, the Haskins & Sells team emerged the victor by the score of 3–1. In a second game on October 12, the Mutual Life Insurance Company team scored eight runs in the second inning and six more in the fourth, and finally beat the Haskins & Sells team by a final score of 17–5. The last recorded game was on October 19, against the persistent Royal Baking Powder Nine. The Haskins & Sells team won 17–14. The team finished the season with an 8–2–1 record.

According to a May 2004 telephone interview with Rhea Tabakin, head librarian in Deloitte’s New York office, a humorous episode occurred in the 1907 season when Sells, who was a friend of the legendary New York Giants manager John McGraw, hired some ringers from the Giants to play on his farm team, resulting in a humbling experience for the Haskins & Sells team—apparently the August 10 game that Haskins & Sells lost to the Farmers 17–2. According to the Baseball Almanac, however, the Giants played an away game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on that day.

Esprit de Corps

After each game, women from the office served a picnic supper in the clubhouse. It was generally close to sundown before the party broke up and returned to town. Because of the intense interest the baseball team received, the “Haskins & Sells Athletic Association” was established. A letter to potential members announcing the formation of the club described the construction of tennis courts and a croquet ground and listed the clubs that had been established—baseball, tennis, and croquet—and announced that a bowling club and a billiard and pool club had been formed for the winter season. Membership was open to all current and former firm employees. According to the letter:

[R]egular exercise each week in the open air very plainly showed itself in the heretofore pale faces and tired eyes of the accountants. The spirits and health of those involved in the games improved. … The other result, the new esprit de corps, which plainly enthused the staff, could only have come through bringing together in a common, enjoyable sport those who before had been associated only through arduous, tiresome work.

Through baseball their work became more enjoyable, and their “good fellowship increased.”

Most Valuable Players

The book noted that over one-third of the firm’s more than 100 employees played on the team. Young women stenographers and family members served as fans. The average age of the players was about 35, and most of these had not touched a ball or bat for at least a decade. Thus, the participants probably would not have otherwise undertaken such physical activity.

At least six known players were later promoted to partner: Howard B. Cook, Edward Fuller, John N. Patton, Peter White, John R. Wildman, and Thomas N. Willins. In fact, they accounted for six of the next 17 partners of the firm over the following 14 years.

Baseball team member Cleveland, although never a firm partner, was an important associate. He was active in the National Municipal League and served on its committee on uniform accounting methods (CUAM), whose membership included both Haskins and Sells. In 1903, Cleveland accepted the professorship of finance at New York University, which he retained until leaving the university in 1908. During this period he also worked for Haskins & Sells as a municipal accounting specialist. After Haskins’ death, Cleveland edited Haskins’ book Business Education and Accountancy.

John Wildman, another Haskins & Sells ballplayer, probably had the greatest influence on Haskins & Sells of any non–managing partner. He was a cofounder of the American Association of University Instructors in Accounting (now the American Accounting Association) and was elected its first president. Wildman left the firm in 1909 to pursue an academic career, returning in 1918 to organize the firm’s research and training unit. The firm had grown and needed someone to “look out for the comfort of the staff and serve as counselor and guide to its members in matters technical, educational, and professional.” Wildman understood that a firm, like a baseball team, was only as good as its players, and personally “drafted” Arthur Foye, John W. Queenan, Weldon Powell, and Ralph S. Johns into the firm. Foye served from 1942 to 1947 as acting managing partner and from 1947 to 1956 as managing partner. Foye was succeeded by Queenan, who served as managing partner from 1956 to 1970.

Deloitte Today

For years, Haskins & Sells shared several international practices with Deloitte, Plender, Griffiths & Co. The two firms officially merged U.S. operations in 1952 and later became known as Deloitte, Haskins & Sells. The growth of the firm has been accompanied by praise from Fortune magazine, which has repeatedly named Deloitte one of the “100 Best Companies to Work For.” For six consecutive years, from 1998 to 2003, Deloitte was ranked from a low of 79th place to a high of eighth place. These high rankings likely reflect employee job satisfaction and almost certainly contribute to the firm’s retention of intellectual capital.

The high Fortune ranking may also be attributable to programs aimed at retaining female employees. As reported in the Harvard Business Review (Nov./Dec. 2000), in 1991 only 5% of Deloitte’s partners and directors were women. As a result of an initiative launched in 1993, a firm representative reports that that number has now risen to 17%. The gender gap in turnover has been eliminated, falling from 25% in the early to late 1990s to 18% today, saving the firm recruitment and training expenses.

In 1907, Haskins & Sells, through the cooperation and encouragement of its partners and associates, grew stronger through baseball. Associates and partners exercised, socialized, laughed, and relaxed together. Business leaders today understand the benefits that companies derive from healthy and happy employees: lower turnover, improved morale, and increased competitive position. Much as baseball did in 1907, the recent women’s initiative has strengthened Deloitte—not only by offering activities or programs, but through the open, active, and sincere expression of concern for employees’ work/life balance and well-being.

One could argue that Deloitte is simply practicing “family traditions.” Indeed, the culture of a firm is built upon its history. Yesterday’s ballgame is today’s cutting-edge recruitment and retention program, and the innovative “best practices” of the partnership will become standard fare for the profession. The secret of any organization’s success remains moving first and often with innovative programs that support employees. Successful firms have not forgotten how to play ball.


Mark E. Jobe is a doctoral student in the Patterson School of Accountancy, University of Mississippi, University, Miss. He is a doctoral instructor and also works as a researcher in the National Library of the Accounting Profession.
Dale L. Flesher, PhD, CPA, CMA, CIA, CFM, CFE
, is a professor as well as associate dean and Arthur Andersen Alumni Lecturer in the School of Accountancy at the University of Mississippi, University, Miss.

Photos courtesy of the authors and the National Library of the Accounting Profession at University of Mississippi. 1. Tea; 2. De Roy S. Fero; 3. Charles S. Ludlam; 4. The infield, looking toward home plate; 5. Fans; 6. Elijah Watt Sells; 7. Homer A. Dunn; 8. A team of winners; 9. F. Samuelson (who was apparently a power hitter); 10. The crack catcher (Probably T.J. Murray); 11. Three of a kind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



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