President-elect Donald Trump has nominated as his Army secretary Vincent Viola, an Army veteran who became a billionaire after founding an electronic trading firm and went on to buy the Florida Panthers hockey team.
Viola is a 1977 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and funded the creation of its highly regarded Combating Terrorism Center after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A former infantry officer and Ranger School graduate, he has pressed for innovation in cyber warfare, saying at a conference five years ago that the Army of the future will be built on a “gestalt of geekdom.”
“We’ve got to find geeks who love their country,” Viola said, according to the military technology website Defense Systems. “At my company, I’ll gladly trade 10 pull-ups and five minutes on a run for 20 IQ points and heart.”
In that same speech, Viola encouraged the Army to stay several steps ahead of potential adversaries by using innovation in technology, and encouraged buying off-the-shelf products and equipment rather than designing everything from scratch.
Viola made the bulk of his fortune after founding Virtu Financial, a high-frequency trading firm. He was the chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange from March 2001 to March 2004, and took Virtu public in April 2015.
Trump said Monday in a statement that Viola has a proven track record for delivering results despite challenges.
“He is a man of outstanding work ethic, integrity, and strategic vision, with an exceptional ability to motivate others,” Trump said. “The American people, whether civilian or military, should have great confidence that Vinnie Viola has what it takes to keep America safe and oversee issues of concern to our troops in the Army.”
Viola said that, if confirmed, a primary focus of his leadership will be ensuring that soldiers have the means to fight and win conflicts of all kinds.
“This great honor comes with great responsibility, and I will fight for the American people and their right to live free every day,” Viola said.
Viola purchased the National Hockey League’s Panthers team in 2013, saying that he did so based on “intuition.” He moved to Florida, and said then that he planned to retire there.
Viola was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., by Italian immigrants, and served in the 101st Airborne Division after the Vietnam War ended. His father and several uncles served in combat in World War II, and he grew up believing that serving in the military was a deeply honorable profession, he recalled in an interview for the West Point Center for Oral History.
“I remember as a young man kind of unrealistically wanting to go to Vietnam,” Viola said. “I was young, but I had the sense that I want to go there, and when I’m 18 I can. That was probably a bit sort of romantic in my assessment, or a bit nostalgic in assessment. But, there was a very clear ethos that was sewn in to me by my immediate family — my nuclear and extended family — that you absolutely must be ready to sacrifice for this country that gave us so much.”
Viola left the Army after his father had a heart attack, he said in the West Point interview. He attended New York Law School, but became a trader instead of a lawyer.
Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Combating Terrorism Center, said Trump’s nomination of Viola is an “inspired pick.” He was a driving force in both forming and funding the center, and was motivated by his experiences helping colleagues at the New York Mercantile Exchange evacuate from lower Manhattan after the Sept. 11 attacks, Hoffman said.
“He was always in the background there, but it was never about him,” Hoffman said of Viola’s influence on the West Point center. “He imparted his wisdom on a one-to-one basis, but he was not someone who was up that mic and or the dais. It was never about him.”
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D.-N.Y.) said Monday in two tweets that Viola’s dedication to the Army is “second to none” and that he is “up for the job.”
Philip Carter, an Army veteran who served in the Obama administration official and is now an analyst with the Center for a New American Security, also backed Viola, calling him a “solid pick for our Army.”