Robert Nardelli has given a lot of tough employee reviews in his many years leading companies. But he remembers one in particular.
Nardelli was at General Electric Co., serving as one of Jack Welch's trusted lieutenants, and he was critiquing an ex-soldier, one of many who he ushered into the company's ranks.
"I said, 'You don't seem to be too intimidated by this operating review,'" Nardelli recalled. "He said: 'With all due respect sir, getting shot at in Iraq is a lot more uncomfortable than your operating review.' That's why you love these kids; they don't get flustered. They only know success. They only know focus. It's 'Get the mission done.'"
A growing number of financial services firms are taking a cue from Nardelli and enlisting workers from the armed forces.
GI Jobs magazine, published by Pittsburgh-based Victory Media, now has 10 financial services firms on its list of 100 best employers for military personnel , including Bank of America, The Hartford Financial Services Group, State Farm Insurance and U.S. Bancorp. In 2003, the first year that the magazine created the list, the only finance shop to make the cut was USAA, a bank designed to serve military personnel and their families.
Nardelli, now at Cerberus Capital Management LP, a New York-based private equity group, is developing a military recruiting program that will be rolled out to the firm's portfolio companies this summer.
The former Home Depot chief expects to gain good, rapid decision-making: "a quick 'yes,' a quick 'no,' and no slow 'maybes.'"
Ask any manager who has had ex-soldiers or sailors on their squad and you'll hear the same accolades: great leaders, cooperative in teams, extremely disciplined, natural improvisers and hugely loyal. Most folks with military training also have a knack for handling stress and sleep deprivation -- occupational hazards in both fighting and finance.
Donald Aven was fresh out of West Point and a three-year Army stint when he signed on to open an Edward Jones office in 1994.
"They said, 'Talk to 25 people a day,' and I said, 'Well, I'll talk to 50," he explained.
A few years later, Aven had more than 1,000 advisors working under him and was hiring more. "We loved military candidates," he said. "Similar to the military, the financial services industry is all about executing."
Demand for Troops
RJ & Makay, a Colorado Springs, Colo., based recruiter for financial service companies, said it is getting a growing number of client requests for ex-soldiers. Last year, 10% of the financial advisors that it placed had military backgrounds, according to chief executive Darin Manis.
"We look for anybody in the military, especially with a degree," Manis said. "And anybody that's in a leadership position -- especially leadership in the war theatre -- that gets a lot of points."
The Hartford, a Conn.-based insurance and wealth management company, launched a formal armed forces recruiting program two years ago. The effort really took off when some of its leaders flew to Pensacola, Fla., to watch Naval officer training on a trip organized by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, a Defense Department program designed to help soldiers transition to civilian life.
"It's like they are getting a very unique MBA," said Christine Bilotti-Peterson, vice president of executive talent management at The Hartford. "And to me this is not a philanthropic move. It's a win for the people coming off of assignment and it's a win for us because we're getting great talent."
In the past two years, The Hartford has hired about 200 veterans.
And then there are firms with a military mission, so to speak -- those that almost exclusively serve soldiers and their families. USAA, one such organization based in Texas, is nearing its goal to fill one quarter of its jobs with candidates from military backgrounds or spouses. In 2008, it hired 472 people who had served in the armed forces, including a number of wounded veterans.
Meanwhile, 10% of workers at the Navy Federal Credit Union, a Virginia-based organization, have been or still are in the military. An additional 65% of the credit union's workforce has some kind of military connection, be it a spouse or relative.
Making the Transition
Going from the armed forces to the trenches of the finance industry, like any career change, is tricky to negotiate. Recognizing this, The Hartford tries to place personnel at offices near their recent bases. It has also organized a company-wide group for former military employees to connect and help each other make the transition to the corporate world.
Often, these candidates passed up formal experience or higher education to fight. And soldiers are trained not to stand out, which makes them relatively poor self-promoters.
Yinon Weiss, a 32-year-old student at Harvard Business School*, almost blew his entrance interview when he was asked if he ever led people. The question should have been a "gimme." Weiss was a 10-year military veteran -- a Green Beret -- and had just returned from a post in Iraq where he commanded more than 100 U.S. and Iraqi special-forces troops.
"I didn't want to come across as being over the top, so I kind of fumbled through that," he recalled. "In the military, the performance of your team speaks for itself. But I realized that the onus was on me to translate that experience."
Weiss must have figured it out; he will intern in Goldman Sachs's wealth management division this summer.
* Weiss is one of about 60 ex-soldiers at HBS, roughly 3% of the student body. Other top MBA programs are following Harvard's lead, recruiting ex-soldiers with new job fairs and veteran's scholarships. Business schools have also signed on for the Yellow Ribbon program, a portion of the federal GI Bill that provides lump-sum payments of several thousand dollars for expensive degree programs.
Write to Kyle Stock
More from Stock:
-- Hired Guns: Temp CFOs Find Work in Tough Market
-- The Upside to Lying and Procrastinating at Work
-- RBC Mining for Gold in Vancouver
-- Credit Default Swap Surge: Will the Notorious CDS Lead a Finance Recovery?
-- Alternative Assets: Asset-Based Lenders Boom as Traditional Lending Shrinks
-- Recruiting New Talent: Are Banks Doing It Wrong?
-- Thanks, But No Thanks: Finance Pros Declining Job Offers
-- MBA Students Still banking on Finance