Saturday, October 29, 2011

A "tough guy from Brooklyn": new book describes Vinny Viola, Nets minority owner (and the one who brought Mary Higgins Clark on board)

Had the larger-than-life Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov not emerged on the scene, the buyer of the New Jersey Nets may well have been Brooklyn-born Vincent (Vinny) Viola, former chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange (NYMEX) and now chair of the firm Virtu Financial.

And Viola appears to be a colorful figure in his own right, according to The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World's Oil Market, journalist Leah McGrath Goodman's dishy 2011 book about NYMEX. Still, given some careless reporting, we may have to take some of it with a grain of salt.

(Photo from Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point, which Viola has supported philanthropically. A retired Army Reserve Major, he still lectures on cyber warfare.)


The book also explains that Viola was the connection that brought several investors to the Nets, including novelist Mary Higgins Clark.

A "tough guy from Brooklyn"


Goodman credits Viola with managing NYMEX well in the horrific wake of the 9/11 attacks, and argues that NYMEX controls the oil market. However, she seems equally interested in portraying the "lurid culture of NYMEX traders," in the words of Publishers Weekly.

She describes a businessman capable of getting tough:
Viola was perhaps the handsomest of all the exchange chairmen, but beneath the spit and polish he was still a tough guy from Brooklyn. Growing up, he'd attended a vocational technical high school and graduated from the military academy at West Point in 1972. He'd gone on to the Army Ranger school, served as an infantry officer in the 101st Airborne Division, and transferred to the Army Reserve in 1982. Viola left the Army Reserve as a major in 1993.... After becoming a local in the Nymex gasoline pit, he finally found his niche. He compared trading to being in an army platoon. "You have all this information coming at you and you have to focus, to pick out what's significant and make decisions in real time."
(Emphases added throughout)

Viola attended Brooklyn Technical High School, aka Brooklyn Tech, which is one of the city's most competitive schools, aimed at the college bound, not a vo-tech school designed to steer students toward a career.

Getting involved with Ratner

Viola, a New Jersey resident and longtime Nets season ticket holder (via NetsDaily, which offered a 6/26/09 bio sketch), got to know Bruce Ratner through real estate. Goodman writes:
After becoming a Nymex trader, Viola also dabbled in other businesses, running some community banks in Dallas and starting up proprietary trading shops active in the New York and London energy markets. After taking the chairmanship, he even invested in the Nets basketball team alongside real-estate developer Bruce Ratner, who'd worked on the construction of the Nymex building that had generated so much controversy. The two men moved the team from New Jersey to Viola's hometown of Brooklyn, with Viola bringing in other investors from Nymex--most notably, bestselling mystery romance novelist Mary Higgins Clark, whose daughter Patty Clark Derenzo was Viola's secretary.
Despite the past tense, the team has not yet moved.

The "intimidation factor"

Interviewee Ben Kaufman, the son of a big oil trader who interned at NYMEX, describes Viola:
"Viola was the street-smart Italian guy, always with a bunch of Brooklyn and Staten Island kids hanging around him. Vinnie had the influence and the intimidation factor going for him... He dressed and acted like a Mafioso don... We usually didn't see him come down to the pits unless he wanted to intimidate somebody.
That sounds impressive, but Prokhorov has "the intimidation factor" too, along with the exotic accent.

Author Goodman spends a lot of time on this theme, suggesting that Viola managed his image well:
Viola had a nasty temper, but [predecessor chairman Lou] Guttman says he didn't lose control of his emotions easily. "He exuded leadership. His personality was amazing. he drew people in. He was a phenomenal speaker. Even if he didn't know what he was talking about, he sounded like he knew what he was saying. He was an astute businessman and an extreme opportunist."
(I had a brief, non-Atlantic Yards-related interaction with Viola once. He seemed like a stand-up guy.)

Gargano-esque ambitions

Viola, who "even set up a dojo in his office to study kung fu," had ambitions that recalls those of former Empire State Development Corporation Chairman Charles Gargano, who once served as an ambassador to Trindad and Tobago and liked to be addressed as "Ambassador":
The son of a truck driver, Viola transcended the chairman's mold. He could mix with society pagers and pit traders with equal aplomb... Viola's fondest wish, says the former associate, was to be ambassador to Italy or to the Vatican, but "he acted way too shady for that."
The Kruger connection

Viola may live in New Jersey, but he works in New York and he's contributed regularly to political campaigns in New York State As noted 3/20/11, the New York Post reported that Viola gave $5000 to the campaign of state Senator Carl Kruger, now under indictment.

Viola's Brooklyn connection

NetsDaily reported 6/26/09, with no link to sources:
Viola, a native Brooklynite, has supported the move to Brooklyn and as an investor in the Nets, he retains a significant financial interest in the Atlantic Yards. He points out that the arena site is nearby St. Cecilia’s elementary school, which he attended in the 1960’s.
According to the 10/04 newsletter [PDF] of Futures in Education Foundation, Viola attended St. Cecilia’s School in Greenpoint. It recently closed, but was located at 15 Monitor Street, which is nearly four miles from the arena site, according to Google Maps.

Viola surely had referred to Brooklyn Tech. It's less than half a mile away, straight down Fort Greene Place.

Ratner's Viola connection?

Futures in Education, which "provides scholarships and program support to needy students and Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens," has regularly received contributions from the shadowy Forest City Ratner Foundation.

Though a gift was not in the most recent report, for the year 2009; in 2008, Futures in Education was given $16,000.

Could that be because Viola has (or at least had) Ratner's ear?

After all, the 2004 newsletter mentioned above explained that the "dynamically redesigned Brooklyn Museum" would host the annual scholarship fund dinner, honoring Viola, with Ratner serving as a lead chairperson of the dinner committee.

And if the gifts stopped or slowed, would it be because Viola's role has diminished with the advent of Prokhorov?

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:11 PM

    Just a minor correction - Mr. Viola graduated from West Point in 1977, and then started the Infantry Officer Basic Course in the fall of 1977, and graduated from the Ranger Course in early 1978 - I was there with him for IOBC and the Ranger Course - all the rest you say about him (attitudes, demeanor, candor) are spot on - I'd say he's done very well for himself - good for him.

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