Institutional Brokerage Helps Military Veterans Build Careers on Wall Street
Ben Downing, center, with Carolyn E. Hulse and Craig Simmons at Drexel Hamilton. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal
I know little about finance and even less about the military. That put me at something of a disadvantage when I visited Drexel Hamilton, an institutional brokerage firm that was created to help military veterans, and disabled vets in particular, build careers on Wall Street.
It was started in 2007 by Lawrence Doll, a real-estate entrepreneur and service-disabled Vietnam vet, and is run day-to-day by a team of Wall Street vets, including its president, James Cahill, a former Salomon and Lehman Brothers managing director who failed at retirement.
Mr. Cahill pointed proudly around the office, where middle-age bankers sat side-by-side with young veterans recently returned from the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq. He rattled off the resumes of some of the firm’s mentors: Among them, Managing Director John Glynn has a quarter-century of expertise in fixed-income credit trading; and John Martinko, a recent vet who is with Drexel’s equity syndicate, has seven tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, three bronze stars and five small children.
“The problem is, I kept going overseas and coming back,” Mr. Martinko joked. “I never experienced a full-term pregnancy.” Nor the hands-on demands of child-rearing—compared to which the battlefield, whether in Fallujah or at the corner of Nassau and Wall, can sometimes seem like a cakewalk.
“This isn’t too bad,” he acknowledged.
“We have a sniper who sits there,” Mr. Cahill boasted, pointing to an empty desk. “He’s out to lunch.”
“We have 95 employees,” he added. “Forty-four are combat vets. Twenty-five vets have been severely wounded.”
Drexel Hamilton President James Cahill at the company’s office. Andrew Lamberson for The Wall Street Journal.
There was an empty desk with a computer monitor draped with a white and red banner decorated with a single blue star. That banner probably says as much about the firm and its mission as any of the mentoring that was going on. “We put this flag on his chair to show we have a veteran in combat,” explained Mr. Cahill. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds the soldier and everyone else that his job will be waiting when he returns.
Ben Downing, a staff sergeant and Army communications specialist with several combat tours, said that commitment was also made at a previous firm where he worked, but it turned out to be only lip service. “The job was there, but I wasn’t promoted,” he explained. “It was held against me.”
When he was deployed for his final tour of Afghanistan, he was already working for Drexel. “I didn’t want to leave,” he said, but the military gave him no choice. However, there was solace in knowing that his job was protected—and more importantly that his co-workers on Water Street, where the firm’s offices are situated, had his back.
“One distraction I didn’t have was coming back to the job,” he explained. “I never before called my job from a combat zone. It’s a different perspective when you have a corporation that’s made up primarily of vets. Previous employers, I didn’t call because they didn’t care.”
Drexel also takes in stride distractions such as midday doctor and shrink appointments, whether for physical or psychological injuries suffered in combat. In fact, my interview with Mr. Downing had been in the works for a year or two, postponed because of surgery and medical care related to a leg injury he suffered while deployed in Afghanistan. He declined to discuss it further.
“What makes Drexel unique is you have so many people here who understand the issues that coincide with deployment,” Mr. Downing said. “Civilians think I’m the boogeyman. You go through an experience, it has an impression. It’s nothing that anybody wouldn’t have gone through. It shouldn’t preclude them from meaningful employment.
“It’s almost like a support group,” he added of Drexel, “but without the formality of a support group.”
It all sounded great. But it takes more than a supportive environment to succeed in the Wall Street shark pool. Is the firm successful? Mr. Cahill said the firm “made money every year” since he joined.
The veterans and a few administrators are the only employees who draw a salary from the firm. Civilians work on commission. “If we would have had two or three veterans and the rest Wall Street vets, the earnings would be tenfold,” Mr. Cahill acknowledged. “The veterans take salaries. We’ve carried them for a year or two while they come up to speed. They’re learning.”
Mr. Cahill cited Mr. Downing, a vice president for capital markets, as a rising star. He said he knew the guy had potential when Mr. Downing walked him to the subway soon after the vet joined the firm. “I said, ‘You don’t go this way,’ ” Mr. Cahill remembered. “Ben said, ‘Jim, if I could spend 20 minutes with a professional like you…’ ” to pick his brain and learn the business. “You can’t teach that.”
But what about chutzpah, the mother’s milk of Wall Street? They may teach planning, risk assessment and teamwork in the military, but what about brashness, audacity and self-promotion?
Mr. Downing recalled the time he tried to reach the treasurer of a major corporation, his calls going unreturned. “Six times,” Mr. Downing said. “The seventh time, I called and said, ‘I have an appointment with Mr. So and So and I have to cancel it.’ That afternoon, he called back and said, ‘Did I have an appointment with you?’ “
He did now.
– This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on June 3, 2014. Contact the reporter for this story at email@example.com