EXCLUSIVE: JLN ICE House Vinnie Viola NYSE Interview by Josh King

A man is sitting in front of a microphone with the words inside the ice house virginia voda review.
John Lothian

John Lothian

Executive Chairman and CEO

ICE Chief Communications Officer Josh King has done it again, with an in-depth and rich ICE House interview, this time with former NYMEX Chairman and Virtu Founder Vinnie Viola. JLN was given an exclusive preview of the interview, which was published on Monday, August 28

In his ICE House interviews, King, who is also the NYSE’s head of corporate affairs, is able to connect his own life with that of his interviewee in a way that sets up the interview perfectly. King’s interview is like none I had ever heard or seen with Viola before.

King’s son is at the Annapolis Naval Academy in the class of 2027. Viola was part of the class of 1977, 50 years ahead of King’s son’s, at the United States Military Academy at West Point. King deftly transitions from the competition between Army and Navy to that of the U.S. and China as he prepares his conversation with Viola. 

Viola reminisced about a class reunion of the 695 young officers who graduated from West Point on June 8, 1977 and the 68 who showed up for the 50th reunion this year. King and Viola discussed the horrific flooding this year of the Hudson River Valley, which suffered over a hundred million dollars worth of damage at West Point. 

Viola graduated from West Point at an interesting time in U.S. history, right after the end of the Vietnam war. Several of Viola’s teachers were Vietnam veterans who would share battle scenarios and personal decision making with him and his classmates after the regular class subject matter had been addressed. 

It is not hard to see why former President Trump wanted Viola to be his Secretary of Army after you listen to this conversation between King and Viola. Viola is intimately involved in issues of national security and friends with former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The conversation dives deep into U.S. and China relations, China’s defense capabilities and ambitions and the U.S, response needed. 

The podcast transitioned to the time when Viola was getting out of the army in 1986 and Reagan was calling for the Berlin Wall to come down. Their chat moved on to Vladimir Putin’s early formative experiences and how that is influencing today’s world. 

Viola spoke about a trip he took to Ukraine and his impression of how the liberty the Ukrainians experienced is driving their desire to keep it at all costs. 

King and Viola also spoke of some Italian Americans he had the privilege of working with who grew up experiencing the love of liberty. Viola was asked about his father, who came from Italy to the U.S. at the age of three and who later served in the U.S. Army during World War II. 

An early memorable experience with his father that gave Viola direction later in his life was a drive up the Hudson River, over the Bear Mountain Bridge, entering a place Viola said “conjured to me something more powerful than any place I’d been.” That was West Point and he and his father were there to see a junior officer his father had served under who was now assigned to West Point. Viola said his father never talked about the war, but that day they traveled together to West Point changed his life. 

Another key moment came when Viola was on a three-day pass from the 101st Airborne preparing for life after the army. A family friend told Viola he was not going to take an offer from an engineering company or a job with Pfizer, but Viola should come down to the New York Mercantile Exchange. The two of them took the subway to 4 World Trade Center, where the floor of the NYMEX was located. 

Walking onto the floor and seeing the prices on the wall and hearing the shouting traders was all natural for Viola, he said. Viola grew up in a house where everyone was screaming at each other all the time. When Viola’s father was not working his first or second jobs, he was at the racetrack, handicapping the races. He would often take Viola, who would track changes in the odds for various horses for his father. 

Viola found a clearing firm to back him, but he had to promise to serve on several exchange committees. Viola was finishing law school in the evening, so his legal background would be useful to the exchange, but it would also start his path of service to the NYMEX that would ultimately lead to his being elected chairman. 

Viola is appreciative of the kindness he has been shown throughout his career, including from former NYMEX Chairman Lou Guttman. Guttman brought Viola to Chicago to meet with Leo Melamed, Jack Sandner and a then junior CME board member Terry Duffy to talk about NYMEX joining the then-new Globex alliance the CME was forming. 

Eletronic trading made sense to Viola, but he knew it was going to be a hard sell to convince NYMEX members it was in their best interests. 

The interview then jumps to 2001 when Viola has just been elected as NYMEX chairman. Viola is told by mentors he is going to have to deal with electronic trading, it is real.  In short order, new entrant ICE and Jeffrey Sprecher buys the International Petroleum Exchange and then September 11th happens. 

The events of September 11th forced NYMEX to convert their local area network electronic trading system Access to a web-enabled platform in a matter of days in order for the exchange to reopen and trade an expiring crude contract to settle the contract. 

Viola details his September 11th experience, including the rare incident of his wife asking him to drive their middle son Michael to school. As soon as Viola heard the details of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center, his military experience kicked in and he texted the NYMEX vice chairman and the treasurer, Mitchell Steinhouse and Richie Schaeffer, and told them this was a terrorist attack and to close the exchange and evacuate the building. 

As I listened to Viola recounting the turmoil, challenges and gut-wrenching calls and decisions made responding to the terrorist attacks, I appreciated the leadership Viola brought to the chairmanship of NYMEX at that time. His military background served him and the exchange well.

Viola’s leadership experience at NYMEX gave him the insight and relationships that allowed him to invest in the future of the industry, moving at light-speed where the exchange lagged. He formed several companies, including Pioneer Futures, Independent Bank at Texas Regional Bank and Madison Tyler Holdings, from which Virtu Financial was an offshoot.

King and Viola talk in detail about Viola’s creating Virtu and then taking it through the IPO process. They talk more about Viola’s outside interest in sports, including an ownership interest in professional basketball that led to him buy a professional hockey team, the Florida Panthers. Viola was also a partner in a horse that won the Kentucky Derby back in 2017, and Viola relates that story to King.

King does a terrific job of lifting the veil off the story of Vinnie Viola, one of the most significant market participants of our modern era. Viola is a terrific example of someone who loved the world of open outcry, but did not let it get in the way of his continuing to evolve as an exchange leader, investor and business executive.  

 

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