President-elect Donald Trump has announced Vincent Viola as his nominee for Secretary of the Army.
“I am proud to have such an incredibly accomplished and selfless individual as Vincent Viola as our Secretary of the Army,” Trump said Monday.
Here are a few things to know about Viola:
He is an Army veteran. Viola served in the 101st Airborne Division out of Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, where he was trained as an Airborne Ranger infantry officer. He left the Army after his father suffered a heart attack, but remained in the Army Reserves, where he attained the rank of major.
He’s a West Point graduate. Now 60 years old, Viola graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1977. He has said that he was the first member of his family to go to college. His father, an Italian immigrant, was working as a truck driver in Brooklyn when he was born.
In 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attack, he donated $2 million to establish the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, whose mission is to “contribute to the academic body of knowledge and inform counterterrorism policy and strategy.” Among the other donors Viola recruited to launch the CTC was Ross Perot. He also helped to fund the West Point Center for Oral History.
He comes from a military family. In an interview with the West Point Center for Oral History, he said his father and several of his uncles were World War II combat veterans. “Europe, Pacific, the Army Air Corps, Army Infantry, support soldiers – on both sides of my family, we had Bronze Star winners, CIB recipients too, navigators, bombardiers on B-17s and many, many missions,” he said. “So this family pulsed with a patriotic sense of duty to this country that gave us a great life.” Viola has said that he wanted to fight in Vietnam, but was too young. He described his West Point class in 1973 as the first to begin their studies after the Vietnam War ended.
He has a law degree. Viola earned a Doctor of Jurisprudence from New York Law School in 1983. He did not, however, complete the bar exam.
He made his fortune on Wall Street. Beginning in 1982, Viola was an oil trader on what the Financial Times describes as “the sharp-elbowed floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange.” The Wall Street Journal recalls that he had to scrape up $10,000 from his Army pay, along with money borrowed from family and friends, to get a seat on the Nymex.
He was vice-chairman of the exchange from 1993 to 1996, then chairman from 2001 to 2004. After the World Trade Center attack on 9/11, he got the Nymex back up and running in less than a week, by arranging ferry transportation from New Jersey for the traders, and for generators to provide power.
In 2008, he founded a company called Virtu Financial, which used computers to make a huge volume of financial transactions at high rates of speed. This model of “high-frequency trading” was enormously successful. In a profile of the firm entitled “Virtu Never Loses (Well, Almost Never), Bloomberg News noted that the “paradigm-changing” company is currently managing up to 5 million trades per day, but between 2009 and 2014 there was only one day when it lost money… and that was due to a mistake in making a dividend payment.
Viola is now said to be worth about $1.8 billion. The Financial Times observed that its stock has been weak since the company went public in 2015, because the Virtu business model thrives on market volatility and heavy trading volume. Viola will step down as chairman, if confirmed as Secretary of the Army, and would be succeeded by CEO Doug Cifu.
He commands a sizable real estate empire. Forbes lists some valuable real estate Viola owns in Manhattan, including a 20,000 square foot townhouse near Central Park. Yes, that is as expensive as it sounds – when he tried to sell the place in 2013, he listed it for $114 million. He also recently purchased a building from the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn for $105 million. Another notable purchase was a 12-story building owned by Brooklyn Law School, which became the subject of a lawsuit when one of the professors refused to move out.
He owns a hockey team. Viola is the owner of the Florida Panthers NHL team, which he bought for $160 million in 2013. Before that, he was a minority owner of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets. The Panthers will go into a family trust if he is confirmed. The team has played exhibition games at West Point. A number of West Point graduates and military veterans work for the team.
He is noted for his philanthropy. In addition to the donations he made to West Point, Viola has also donated $2 million to Fordham University for a chair in Catholic theology, co-founded the National Children’s Educational Reform Foundation to improve inner-city education, and raised money for charity with the Florida Panthers foundation, among other charitable activities described by the Miami Herald. He has gotten many honors, including “Man of the Year 1997? from the Eden School for Autistic Children, the 1998 Ellis Island Medal of Honor from the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, a 2000 community service award from the Futures and Options for Kids charitable organization, honors from the Jacqueline Hernandez Alzheimer’s Day Care Center, and a Heritage Award from the Hamilton-Madison House, recognizing the achievements of Italian immigrants.
He will most likely be confirmed. The Washington Post notes that the announcement of Viola’s nomination was met with immediate applause from incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who said, “I’ve known Vinnie Viola for over a decade, and his dedication to the U.S. Army is second to none.”
He is very mindful of cyber warfare. The Post also cites Viola’s longtime dedication for innovation in cyber warfare, no doubt informed by his experience with Virtu Financial. Five years ago, he colorfully predicted that the future of the Army would be built upon “a gestalt of geekdom.”
“We’ve got to find geeks who love their country,” he said in 2011. “At my company, I’ll gladly trade 10 pull-ups and five minutes on a run for 20 IQ points and heart.”
“A primary focus of my leadership will be ensuring that America’s soldiers have the ways and means to fight and win across the full spectrum of conflict,” Viola said in a statement after his nomination to be Secretary of the Army was announced.
It’s not easy to keep him behind a desk. Among Viola’s more unusual charitable donations was the oceanographic research vessel Nautilus, which he was actually in the process of converting into a yacht when he was contacted by Dr. Robert Ballard, the explorer who found the Titanic. “I was taken by his vision and dedication, and what he had done already without owning a vessel. I decided the ship would do much more for the United States and the youth of America in his hands than with me converting this magnificent infrastructure into a yacht. So I chose to donate it to Dr. Ballard,” Viola said in a 2013 interview.
When two Turkish pilots were shot down by Syria in 2012, the governments of Turkey and the United States asked Ballard to recover the wreckage, and their bodies, with the Nautilus. It was thought to be the only ship capable of completing the mission, which involved working thousands of feet below the ocean’s surface with remote-controlled submersibles. Viola went along and helped to coordinate the international effort, which was a success. “It was very humbling. I think it was a real example of American service,” he said of the experience.
He knows kung fu. In Leah McGrath Goodman’s book The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market, Viola is described as “perhaps the handsomest of all the exchange chairmen, but beneath the spit and polish he was still a tough guy from Brooklyn.” To that end, he established a studio in his office to study kung fu.
The Miami Herald quotes from Goodman’s book that Viola had a “nasty temper,” but did not “lose control of his emotions easily.”
Viola “exuded leadership,” said Lou Guttman, Viola’s predecessor as chairman of Nymex. “His personality was amazing. He drew people in. He was a phenomenal speaker. Even if he didn’t know what he was talking about, he sounded like he knew what he was saying. He was an astute businessman and an extreme opportunist,” said Guttman.