Carlos Sabater is an outstanding success story. He rose to the helm of the worldwide audit division of Deloitte, the world's largest professional service firm, and later, its entire Americas operation, and was recognized as a global Hispanic business leader.
But when he has the opportunity to speak to a group of students — or anyone else, for that matter — Sabater (BAcc '81) would rather talk about the people who impacted his life: the grandma who accompanied him to the U.S. from Cuba as a 3-year-old, held his hand and told him he could do anything. The FIU School of Accounting professors who chose him as a teaching assistant, pushed him to network in the profession and supported his vision for a new tutoring lab. The accounting colleagues who taught him, as a young man, how to tuck in his shirt and work a room, how to leverage his strengths and forget about his weaknesses, how to handle sensitive conversations and build relationships as he aimed for big goals.
These were Sabater's earliest mentors, the people who gave him road maps through challenging personal and professional moments. Later in life, his mentors taught him to not fear the unknown, that his skills could take him beyond Miami, to important roles not just nationally, but internationally, helping him become one of a handful of Deloitte's senior global leaders.
"My story is about a lifelong view: I needed help," he said. But needing help was only part of the equation, he added. "I quickly learned that the more I helped others, the better it was for me."
With a personality that was naturally gregarious and outgoing, Sabater attracted mentors who taught him how to be disciplined and analytical. And they taught him that when it comes to mentoring, it's just as important to give as it is to receive, perhaps even more so. Along both his personal and professional journeys, Sabater made it a constant practice to look out for those who needed help, guidance, advice, an ear or a shoulder.
"It's amazing to see how he's present for people, how he has the ability to connect and communicate the way not a lot of people have," said Carmen Sabater, Carlos' wife of nearly 30 years, who met him in the firm where they started their careers.
When it came time for Sabater to retire after a 38-year career, his colleagues thought about a gift that would resonate with him, and reached out to FIU Business and Carmen to hatch a plan.
On a warm evening in September 2019, in the early days of his retirement from his position as a Deloitte senior global partner, Sabater was brought to the Reagan House, ostensibly for an FIU Foundation Board of Directors meeting. He walked through the door, was greeted by FIU President Mark Rosenberg, and was led into a room with a collection of family and friends, many from out of town. He started to wonder whether a surprise retirement party had been planned and wasn't pleased with that thought.
"I don't like the fuss," he said.
But after tributes from colleagues and friends, John Zamora (MAcc '96, BAcc '94), Sabater's Deloitte partner and mentee who served as chief operating officer of the firm's audit business, got to the point of the gathering.
"He said, 'Carlos, look around,' " Sabater recalled. " 'All these people have gathered to put something together in your name.' "
"My secret sauce was that I saw my profession as a playground of sorts, to establish relationships. Many of them have lasted to this day."
Carlos Sabater (BAcc '81)
The evening marked the kickoff of a $1 million campaign to fund the Deloitte Foundation-Sabater Scholars Program, which will provide financial support for top students of the FIU College of Business, with a unique mentoring component. The drive was launched with support from Sabater's family and friends, colleagues throughout the business world, and gifts from Deloitte partners, directors and other executives matched by the Deloitte Foundation.
The program will honor Sabater's legacy by providing tuition scholarships to FIU Business students, as well as unique opportunities including mentorship by industry leaders. Financial support will be matched with lessons on leadership, ethics, balancing work and other outside responsibilities, business opportunities and community work.
The people in the room that evening were family members and lifelong friends, mentors and mentees of the honoree. Collectively, they understood that supporting Sabater's commitment to lifting up and giving back was, in his eyes, the ultimate retirement gift.
It took a few minutes that evening for Sabater to process what had transpired, but as he did, he shook his head, put his head into his hands and wiped tears from his eyes.
He still tears up when he thinks about the moment, and "about the opportunity to make that kind of impact into another person's life, possibly into perpetuity." The scholarship program "captured the essence of who I am. It wasn't just about a scholarship. They knew it had to do with my passion around mentoring and my passion about giving back."
"We wanted to tell him that he's made a difference in a lot of people's lives," said Carmen Sabater. She left the accounting firm where they met for a Fortune 500 company, and now serves as CFO of Quirch Foods, a $1 billion privately owned food distribution company that's also a major contributor to FIU. The Sabaters have two daughters: Erica, 27, and Victoria, 26.
"It hasn't always been smooth sailing for him," Carmen said. "He has a message: life doesn't have to be perfect to wind up with a better outcome, and he embodies that. When you work hard, good things will come."
As an athletic young man living in Miami, Sabater got into a boating accident right before he entered FIU, leaving him hospitalized for 14 months and using a wheelchair for a year afterwards. Lying in a hospital bed, he realized how much he depended on the nurses and doctors and physical therapists who helped him recover, and the family and friends who kept his spirits up. That cemented his drive, and his conviction that he could not take his life's journey alone.
As an FIU accounting student, Sabater found himself taking classes with those as driven and committed to professional success as he was.
"There was a discipline around me, at least those I looked up to, that was quite remarkable," Sabater said. "It was a competitive environment but it wasn't cutthroat. We were largely competing against ourselves. Our professors were encouraging and savvy."
He chose an early mentor, who was "a couple of steps further in the book of life than I was." Life at FIU kept him busy: He worked as a teaching assistant, founded an accounting tutoring lab and took on a full slate of classes. At graduation, Sabater followed his mentor into the profession and started to rise through the ranks. As time passed, additional mentors introduced him to some of the most admired leaders in the community, locally, nationally and throughout the world. He advanced his career as he learned how to listen to their concerns and earn their trust.
"I was not your typical accountant," Sabater said. "What set me apart, my secret sauce, was that I saw my profession as a playground of sorts, to establish relationships. Many of them have lasted to this day." Whenever someone came to tell him that they were leaving the firm, he said, "I told them, ‘You may be leaving the firm, but our relationship is far from over, because you'll always be my client and my friend. Either way, we'll be going down the road together.' People saw that I was genuine."
While the Sabater Scholars program will launch in fall 2020, Sabater is already involved in mentoring FIU students in myriad ways. He'll pull out a phone to text a quick word of advice to a business student. He has met with the executive board of an FIU Business student group to offer guidance.
"When I meet an FIU student or an FIU alumnus, I know that generally, I'm dealing with a hardworking, no-nonsense, can-do individual," he said. "I've watched FIU students right out of school join a demanding firm like Deloitte and go head-to-head against students from major universities that are hundreds of years old. If I had to bet on a graduate, I'd place that bet on the FIU grad."
Helping students rise in the business world through education has become Sabater's passion, but as he moves into retirement, he openly shares that it's not his only mission.
The physical and mental trauma he endured as a young man in the boating accident, his yearlong hospital stay and its aftermath left Sabater with an addiction to opiates and painkillers that plagued him for most of his adult life. Now in recovery, he frequently opens up to others about his past, driven by the mission of helping young men free themselves from drug addiction. He works tirelessly to connect with anyone who seeks help.
"If one guy's life can be saved," he said, "I don't want to squander that opportunity."
Among those he considers mentors and friends are those who helped him through that journey to recovery — and he intends to pay it forward by helping others for the rest of his life.
"The most challenging of times is when mentorship really matters," he said. "Mentorship is not just being there for the good stuff. To me, it just became a way of life. There was never a day I didn't reach out for help, or reach out to help people — and there will never be a day that I don't go out with the mission of helping someone else."