By Mark Kroeger
Ben Biles and Keith Lisante had big plans. Roommates at the U.S. Naval Academy, they had grown to become best friends and dreamed of working together on Wall Street when their military service was done.
But those dreams were shattered when Lisante, struggling with his transition back to civilian life, committed suicide just weeks after returning from deployment.
It was a tragedy that happens far too often in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, about 6,000 military veterans a year—that’s 17 veterans every day—take their own lives.
For Biles (pictured left), Lisante’s (pictured right) death was profoundly personal. He resolved to honor his friend’s legacy by fulfilling their shared vision for a career in finance, while at the same time providing meaningful philanthropic support for military veterans seeking to succeed in their return to civilian life.
Biles’ solution was American Veterans Group, an investment banking company he co-founded that dedicates 25 percent of its profits to career readiness programs for military veterans across the U.S.
Since establishing the company in 2018, and through the end of 2020, American Veterans Group will have donated $70,000 of its earnings to career readiness programs in New York City, Boston and Charlotte, N.C. The money—100 percent of it—has directly supported career training for up to 150 veterans as well as payed for training and salaries for a dozen career readiness coaches and instructors.
According to Biles, he and his team of 15 employees at American Veterans Group are just getting started.
“Our social-impact mission is what distinguishes us on Wall Street,” said Biles, “Our vision from the start has been to create a ripple effect through our philanthropic giving—an ever-widening circle—that impacts, and improves, the lives of as many returning military veterans and their families as possible. The best way to do that is to become a recognized leader in our industry, while never losing sight of the social mission that got us here.”
To fulfill that mission, Biles and his team structured American Veterans Group as a Public Benefit Corporation, which they bill as the only one of its kind on Wall Street. The investment banking firm has a parallel non-profit foundation—the AVG Foundation—that manages the company’s philanthropic giving.
American Veterans Group partners with national, military-focused charities to deliver social impact in the local communities where it does business.
“It’s important for us to serve our clients’ in their own backyards,” Biles said. “A lot of veterans who need this kind of support live in places other than New York City, and our clients recognize that. They see veterans in their own communities who are struggling. It goes a long way when we are able to show that our philanthropy is directly supporting those local needs.”
Being veteran-owned, American Veterans Group qualifies as a diversity supplier. Biles is building the company by networking and forging partnerships with high-profile names in the investment banking community; reaching out to corporate and municipal banking relationship managers; and telling his story to corporate executives who guide diversity supplier, corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategies.
“We make it a priority to hire and partner with veterans and veteran-owned companies, but our impact extends well beyond even those important benchmarks,” Biles said. “We’re able to demonstrate a direct, deeper and wider impact on veterans in local communities where we’ve done business. We can help corporate clients point to measurable social impact as it relates to veterans both locally and nationally by including us when they decide to access capital in the financial markets.”
Since its founding, American Veterans Group has supported nearly 70 financial transactions as a co-manager or selling group member, helping such states as Massachusetts and California, and municipalities such as Chicago and New York City, access the debt capital markets. The company also supports equity capital market transactions, preferred stock syndicates and secondary trading issues.
American Veterans Group’s high-profile investment banking and financial industry partners include Citi, Bank of America, Barclays and MetLife. The company’s sales team members average 20-plus years’ experience.
Biles co-founded the company with William Frazier, a financial industry leader with 45 years’ experience. Frazier was a partner at Oppenheimer & Company where he led the firm’s global fixed income division. Before American Veterans Group, Frazier founded and oversaw all aspects of Gates Capital Corporation, a boutique dealer specializing in fixed income trading support to independent registered investment advisors.
“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Keith and remember the plans that we made,” Biles said. “My hope is that he’d be so proud of what we’ve accomplished in such a short period of time. And it’s our mission in life, and in business, to make certain that we’re helping returning military veterans just like him find their pathways home.”