Published: June 16, 2012
With unemployment just above 8 percent, it’s clear that finding a job is tough for many Americans. But for war veterans, particularly disabled ones, it’s even tougher. Nearly one of every three young male veterans was out of work last year.
This is a story about one small financial business that is trying to change that. It is called Drexel Hamilton, and in the take-the-money-and-run world of Wall Street, this firm is giving back.
Drexel Hamilton, an institutional brokerage firm with offices in Manhattan and Philadelphia, prepares disabled veterans for careers in finance. Twenty percent of its expenses go toward housing, educating and training such veterans. Once they pass regulatory exams, they interview for jobs at financial institutions. Those who can’t find work suited to their abilities are hired by Drexel Hamilton.
The idea of creating a firm owned and operated by wounded veterans began with Lawrence K. Doll, a former home builder and commercial real estate executive. A disabled veteran himself — he received two Purple Hearts and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry for his years in the Marine Corps in Vietnam — he still has shrapnel in both legs.
Mr. Doll, 62, started Drexel Hamilton in 2007, with his own money. Today the firm, which serves institutional clients like pension funds and hedge funds, has $3.2 million in assets, six offices across the country and 35 employees. Nine of them were wounded while serving in the military. Three interns working there this summer are also disabled vets.
Eric Eberth, 34, is one of the firm’s full-time employees. While serving as an Apache Longbow helicopter pilot in the Army in Iraq, Mr. Eberth experienced traumatic brain injury. He was honorably discharged in December 2008. Now he is working in Drexel Hamilton’s public finance unit, which underwrites and sells municipal bonds.
To help recruits learn the business, Drexel Hamilton apprentices them to securities industry professionals with decades of experience. Mr. Eberth, for example, works with Thomas Mead, a former public finance executive who spent years at Salomon Brothers.
Ben Downing, 38, a former Army staff sergeant in Iraq, works in Drexel Hamilton’s capital markets unit. He is paired with Roger Elsas, a former executive at Lehman Brothers and Oppenheimer. Born in Brooklyn, Mr. Downing went into active duty directly out of high school. “Access to a career in finance wasn’t available to me,” he told me.
SINCE it began its training program, Drexel Hamilton has prepared 30 wounded veterans for executive finance positions. Twenty-one have been hired by banks or brokerage firms, among them JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
Mr. Doll is also co-founder of the Wall Street Warfighters Foundation, a nonprofit group that finds candidates for banking careers and subsidizes a portion of their training at Drexel Hamilton. Donations from institutions and individuals pay for the costs not covered by Drexel.
“The goal for Wall Street Warfighters is to train 24 disabled veterans a year,” Mr. Doll said. “We don’t intend for all of them to work on Wall Street. If they’re in Omaha, they might work in a community bank.”
To be eligible for the program, veterans must pass background checks, have completed their military obligations and received an honorable discharge. They must also demonstrate an interest in finance.
Peter Pace, a retired four-star general in the Marine Corps, is a co-founder and chairman of the charity. Foundation officials travel to military hospitals to interview candidates. Once in the program, trainees spend six months in Drexel Hamilton’s Philadelphia office, studying for regulatory exams and learning finance basics.
James W. Cahill, 74, is the firm’s president. A former executive at Salomon Brothers, he came out of retirement to rebuild Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, a securities firm, after it was decimated in the 2001 World Trade Center attacks. His son Tom, a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, died in the north tower.
Mr. Cahill retired from Keefe, Bruyette in early 2008 but agreed to return to work when he heard about Drexel Hamilton. “The conflicts overseas are winding down,” he said. “These are our peers, and now they’re back. It’s our responsibility to help them find their way in civilian life.”
Last year, 633,000 veterans of the second Gulf War era — one in four of the veterans from this period — reported having a service-related disability, according to the Labor Department. Only 80 percent of these disabled veterans were in the labor force as of August 2011, when the Labor Department collected the data.
Michael Steigerwald, 49, a decorated former Air Force pilot, works in sales at Drexel Hamilton with his former navigator, Fred Phelan, 42. Their plane took a direct hit from a rocket attack in Iraq. “We spent a lot of time in conflict management leading good people into difficult situations,” Mr. Steigerwald said. “Wall Street is not that different for us.”
In several states and cities, Drexel Hamilton has received the same status assigned to financial firms run by women, African-Americans or Latinos. This means that the firm is among those that can compete for a specified portion of business awarded by the state or city. Delaware, Florida and Virginia designate Drexel Hamilton as a minority-owned firm for contracting business, as does Cook County, Ill., and Grand Rapids, Mich.
The New York State Senate has passed legislation that would put firms owned by service-disabled veterans on an equal footing with minority-owned firms. The State Assembly is weighing its own bill that would “provide service-connected disabled veteran-owned businesses and veteran-owned businesses with increased opportunities in state contracting.”
Even without the designation, Drexel Hamilton has successfully competed with far larger and more established firms for business in New York. The firm is financial adviser to theNew York City Municipal Water Finance Authority, for example. And Drexel has been co-manager of equity or debt offerings this year for some of the nation’s largest financial institutions as well as Pepsico, the American International Group, Kroger and the Southern Company.
CAULDON D. QUINN, 39, is a disabled Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He started on Drexel Hamilton’s stock trading desk in early 2010 and is now chief financial officer.
The firm has been able to grow during a challenging time for the securities industry, and not just because it does a good job of advising clients and executing trades for them, Mr. Quinn said. Customers know that when they do business with the firm, more veterans can be trained for a productive civilian life.
“If a customer gives us a fraction of their business,” he said, “the benefit to a firm like ours is to improve the lives of men and women who have served their country.”
In Wall Street parlance, that’s a pretty good trade.