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A CFO & His Firm Fight for Disabled Veterans

by David McCann
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Drexel Hamilton's Cal Quinn in his formal Navy whites, his combat garb, and today as a CFO.

A brokerage exists to turn a profit that will help it find jobs for disabled former service members like its own finance chief.

 
The grace under pressure that’s essential for executing sensitive military missions is also a valuable trait for Cal Quinn in his civilian professional life, where he is CFO of Drexel Hamilton, a small but fast-growing institutional equity broker-dealer.

Quinn, who served in specialized combat roles in Afghanistan and off the coast of Iraq during his 10-year Navy career, is running the internal finance function for a firm with a foundational value that many would view as incompatible with running a successful company. That is, Drexel Hamilton commits 20% of its expenses to a charitable cause. “Put a fifth of my budget to something that doesn’t drive revenue? That’s business hara-kiri, right? But we are firmly committed to both missions,” says Quinn.

The nonprofit mission is to help disabled veterans find meaningful work. Much of that effort is directed to an affiliated nonprofit organization called the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation, which identifies, trains, and places veterans in careers in the financial-services industry. The organization has a 100% job-placement rate for graduates of its six-month training program. Quinn, himself a graduate, has had 13 surgeries on both knees, his right hand, his back, and more, stemming from service-related, noncombat trauma.

The firm and foundation were co-founded three years ago by Drexel CEO Lawrence Doll, a Vietnam veteran with two Purple Hearts, and Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who chairs the foundation. About 40% of Drexel’s employees are veterans, and half of those are disabled.

Quinn came to the firm in 2009, seven years after leaving the service and setting out to become an expert in electronic trading. “I knew that if I wanted to create value for myself with an organization, I had to learn something other people didn’t know about,” he says. The strategy paid off big, with electronic trading having become an increasingly dominant force in the institutional equity markets since then.

His first role with Drexel was helping the firm get its fixed-income execution business off the ground, but when Doll offered to make him president of that unit, Quinn declined, saying he didn’t know enough about fixed income to lead the effort. But he had graduated from the Naval Academy’s affiliated business school after completing his undergraduate program, interned with Dean Witter before going into active service, and held a succession of increasingly responsible posts at institutional finance firms for the previous several years. So, in October 2010 he got a new offer: to be the firm’s first CFO.

In that role, Quinn says, he has been well buoyed by his military experiences, in which thinking on his feet became second nature. For three years, he was part of a team that boarded and forcibly took over Iraqi vessels under cover of night to enforce an embargo in effect at the time. The team climbed up the sides of the ships on beaded ladders, carrying telescopic poles. “I had some exposure to noncompliant boardings and dangerous situations,” he says.

Later, he volunteered to be part of a team that conducted the initial insurgency into Afghanistan in 2001. “Any loss of life is bad, mine or theirs, and what I had been involved in made me feel I could handle volatile situations and potentially prevent the taking of life.”

The need for quick decision-making is a trait of Quinn’s professional career, too. Every transaction a broker-dealer makes could affect its ability to conduct business. Even a single trade can sink a firm. There are also many regulatory requirements for brokerages, so close daily monitoring of Drexel’s capital position and expenses-to-revenue ratio is essential, Quinn says.

Other basics absorbed from the military include integrity and discipline. “If you’ve got 48 hours of things to do but only 24 hours to do them, you’d better have organization and structure,” he says.

Quinn, 39, says veterans may have an advantage over their contemporaries when it comes to discipline. Noting his generation’s often-suggested sense of entitlement, he says the “humbling” experience of military service gave him a heightened sense of earning what he gets. “I’m not going to ask for something out of the gate. I’m going to seek out a meritocracy that will give me an opportunity to earn into something, and I will then demonstrate capacity and competence.”

Perhaps even more important to his CFO role is a military-hardened commitment to mission. “In a combat theater, there is no do-over and no opportunity to say you can’t achieve the mission. You either die or you live. That’s useful for me in my civilian career. Failure is not an option. You just find a way.

“The reality is that investment banking and brokerage is a very difficult market right now,” he says. “Volumes are at a three-year low, and investors are very skittish about putting their money to work. In the [past] year the industry has laid off 200,000 people involved in equity transactions. But I don’t care about that. We can’t allow those excuses to dominate our rhetoric.”

For Quinn and Drexel Hamilton, today’s twofold mission starts with building a top-echelon brokerage that stands on the merits of the services it delivers. And the future indeed looks bright. In 2009 the firm, with six employees, was deep in red ink and executed trades totaling only 200,000 shares, which Quinn likens to an auto dealer “selling one hubcap.” Now the firm is up to 40 employees and has been increasingly profitable every quarter since 2010.

The goal is not only profitability for its own sake but also to use the firm’s cash to hire more disabled veterans directly, be the financial engine behind the philanthropic effort of Wall Street Warfighters, and “demonstrate to the market how disabled veterans can add to an organization.”

Quinn says the number of veterans with disabilities qualifies as an epidemic. One in four who has served in overseas battle zones since September 11, 2001, has returned disabled, compared with a historical average of 13%, he says. Of the disabled, 20% are unemployed, or more than twice the rate of their civilian contemporaries. Altogether, there are 110,000 unemployed disabled vets.

HIPAA regulations prevent the Veteran’s Affairs department from sending the foundation a list of the disabled, so Wall Street Warfighters representatives have to make personal visits to VA rehabilitation centers to meet potential applicants.

“There are people who push the morphine button, and those who put it down because they’re ready to move on with their lives,” says Quinn. “Those are the people we’re looking for, regardless of educational background. And we’re looking for the same thing any employer should look for: demonstrated excellence. If you were the top-performing sergeant in the 6th Battalion, and you need help getting your life in order, we can harness your skills so you can be successful in this industry as well, even if you don’t have the academic prowess to be a credit trader.”

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