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The Inspiring Backstory of E Matthew ‘Whiz’ Buckley, Founder and CEO of Strike Fighter Financial and Top Gun Options

“SPA: This 3-letter acronym is one of the main reasons the military succeeds and businesses fail. There might be 10 people working on something, but one of them ‘owns it’. SPA means Single Point of Accountability. They are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a mission or initiative.”

I had the pleasure to interview E. Matthew ‘Whiz’ Buckley. Mr. Buckley is a decorated former Navy fighter pilot renowned speaker, and the Founder and CEO of Strike Fighter Financial and Top Gun Options (TGO). A graduate of the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOP GUN, Buckley and TGO’s motto is “Trading is Combat.” In business, he successfully applies strategies acquired during 15 years of flying the F/A-18 Hornet, 44 combat sorties over Iraq, and landing aboard aircraft carriers. He was inspired to launch TGO after applying methodologies he learned flying fighter jets to his personal stock trading. Having a strategy, implementing tactics, contingency planning and knowing when to exit a situation, worked — and Buckley knew he could help others succeed. He even applies a military analogy to paying it forward. He says, “When a lot of people on Wall Street make it, ‘they pull the ladder UP.’ In the military when we make it, ‘we put the ladder DOWN’ to help others.” He now manages four model portfolios at TGO and teaches retail traders of all experience levels how to trade equity options. His efforts enabled the firm to grow from 99 employees to over 600 and increase in enterprise value from $150M to over $2.5B in just three years.

Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I was 1 of 6 kids born into a lower middle class Irish catholic family outside of Philadelphia in South Jersey. My family raised me with the belief that the American Dream was in fact real and I could achieve anything I wanted to be as long as I applied myself, worked hard, and cared for others. I loved my country, the ocean and flying so I set out to become a navy fighter pilot.

Unfortunately, as I entered high school one of my older sisters, Monica, was killed by a drunk driver when she was a freshman at Villanova University. This was a devastating loss and setback at a young age, so I had to apply myself even harder as my parents had an especially tough time and were emotionally destroyed. I basically had to raise my younger sister Marycate.

After her death, something nagged at me: I wondered if someone was there with my sister when she passed that cared, that was loving. I decided to volunteer at my local Rescue Squad so I could help others at times like this. I seriously considered becoming a doctor but opted to serve my fellow Americans on a larger scale by joining the military.

Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I ran out on stage in Las Vegas to give a keynote to about 1500 sales people (mainly women) for one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. Dressed in my navy flight suit I thought it was a VERY patriotic reception as the crowd went wild.

I tried to calm the crowd and start my keynote, but one of the ladies in the front row yelled ‘Aren’t you from The Thunder Down Under’?!

I said no, and she screamed ‘Wait… Are you a REAL fighter pilot?!’

I said yes, do want to make sure? She screamed YES!, ran up on stage and pinched me!

The crowd went even more wild but I finally was able to pull off the keynote.

Standing ovation at the end!

Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are NO other financial training companies that combine military training with trading, but it makes perfect sense. If I failed flying a fighter jet I didn’t get to come home… So by applying the same methodologies I used flying combat sorties over Iraq I train retail traders to trade successfully.

Wall Street isn’t going to ‘take it easy’ on you just because you’re a retail trader — as a matter of fact, they look down their noses at retail traders as if they’re only to be used as liquidity. To be used as ‘cord wood’ according to one of my old partners. I change that equation and put my members on the winning side.

Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Fortunately, the military has a great selection system that promotes men and women based on leadership qualities so I was fortunate to have many commanding officers who served as role models to guide me through my career.

The person who truly empowered me to get where I am today was my father. He instilled in me honesty, courage, commitment, love of country and family. He died at the young age of 65, strong as an ox, while getting on a treadmill to work out. There is not a day that goes by that I do not miss him or his wisdom.

If I could be half the father he was to my 3 beautiful children, Matthew Jr., Jack, and Keeley — they’re going to make this world a better place.

Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have a saying when it comes to investing: No one cares more about your money than you. This is sad but very true. After the government takes their cut, many people give their hard-earned money to a relative, friend, or financial advisor to invest with at best mixed results, at worst — ruined family ties or friendships.

By training people to successfully invest on their own, I empower them to achieve their financial objectives and create a better future for them and their families.

I truly believe that if you give a poor man a fish you feed him for a day. You teach him to fish and you give him an occupation that will feed him for a lifetime. That’s the guiding precept of Top Gun Options.

Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.

Since the dawn of humans, military action proceeded business. Cavemen fought for food and territory, until someone smart decided that they could trade goods and services and avoid bloodshed. So many lessons I learned in the military I naturally assumed existed in the business world. I was wrong. Here are the “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Didn’t Exist in the Business World (That Did in the Military) Before I Became CEO”

1. “I got it” When I asked someone in the military to do something, as soon as I was done speaking and I heard 3 words, the task was done in my mind. It didn’t matter if the task needed be done in an hour, week or month. When I heard someone say “I got it” they actually meant it. And if it wasn’t going to get done, they would immediately tell me why and what their new recommended course of action was.

As a C level executive in the business world I quickly found out that many times when I asked someone to do something and was told “Sure”, there was no way in hell that task was going to get done, I’d find out on my own it didn’t get done, and many times I ended up doing it on my own.

The companies I’ve started and own are staffed with men and women who understand that when they are tasked with something they are to say “I got it” and mean it.

2. SPA This 3-letter acronym is one of the main reasons the military succeeds and businesses fail. There might be 10 people working on something, but one of them ‘owns it’. SPA means Single Point of Accountability. They are ultimately responsible for the success or failure of a mission or initiative.

I was the Managing Director of Strategy at one of the largest equity options volatility arbitrage firms in the world based in the Chicago Board of Trade. One day the traders on the floor were having problems getting correct trade quotes from the Philex (Philadelphia Exchange), costing the firm millions in losses. At the end of the trading day I assembled that 7 technology directors to debrief (more on debriefing below) what happened.

I stood in front of the directors in the board room and asked who was in charge of getting quotes from the Philex to the traders on the floor. Silence. Since many of the directors were Ukrainian or Chinese I assumed it was a language issue. I asked again. Nothing. But I did notice some cheeks in seats starting to shift. Third time was the charm.

One of the directors started with “Well Yuri does this, and then I do that, and then…” I didn’t let him finish. It was clear there was no SPA, and also ultimately why this failed and the firm lost money.

Our firm got quotes from numerous exchanges — NYSE, NASDAQ, etc There was no SPA in charge of any of these important connections either.

Upon completion of the debrief, there was a SPA, along with significant lessons learned about accountability that I transferred throughout the firm and this issue never occurred again, saving the firm millions of dollars.

3. Debrief Many companies do not debrief, and this is why they fail. Some businesses have what has got to be the most inappropriately named meeting — a post mortem — after something fails. And those are the businesses that are trying to do better. Many businesses simply shrug their shoulders and move on, only to repeat the same mistakes. Not mine. Not the companies I consult for.

After every mission in my military and business careers — business, training, or combat — I get the team behind closed doors, we take off the rank, everyone is equal, and we hash out what worked, what didn’t, and no punches are pulled. Someone’s rank or position in the company doesn’t matter, nor experience levels. Those are good but you have to set those aside when the criticism starts to fly.

As the leader I start the debrief with what I call ‘inside out criticism’, pointing out where I recognize that I fell short during the execution of the mission. This lowers the barriers to communication, because most employees are very hesitant to point out where their boss fell short. After this I open myself up for feedback from the team, and then team members go around the room and do the same process. This is how we surface lessons learned and improve our overall execution and ensure we do not repeat mistakes.

The debrief isn’t about WHO is right, it’s about WHAT is right.

4. Red Team The main reason we saw rapid growth in my companies was because we had a well-defined strategic plan that was “Red Teamed”. Many companies plan for hours, push back from the table, think their plan is awesome, go out to execute, and fail. Miserably. Why? The plan wasn’t ripped apart in the planning process by employees who weren’t directly involved in creating the plan but came in to act like our enemy/competition — to made the plan even tighter.

Think of it this way — if you’re not Red Teaming your plan, who will do it for you? Your competition, your enemy. And they will gladly do this for you. And it will be too late.

5. Strategic Plan Many companies are very TACTICAL, the don’t know what they’re doing for lunch today let along where they want their company to be in 3 years, something I call a ‘Future Picture’. If you could jump in a time machine a go out to a predetermined point in the future — what would success look like on that day.

I create a 1-year Strategic Objective, break that down into 6-month Operational Objectives, and get tactical by mapping out the daily/weekly/monthly action items. Many businesses fail because they start with the tactical items.

Having a strategic plan enables all employees to ‘look up’ and see the star that we are navigating to and what their specific role in achieving our objectives was. People want to show up to work and know exactly what their role is and what they need to do to succeed. Instead, many people burn out in tactical companies, doing busy work that has nothing to do with the overall mission.

Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)

Since I’ve been in business and the military I’m picking two:

Entertainment — Jon Bon Jovi. We both have similar backgrounds as children and young adults from New Jersey. He’s the son of 2 Marines and raised a Catholic. He’s a family man and very philanthropic, especially around the Philadelphia area where my family is originally from.

Military — Michael Murphy’s parents. LT Michael Murphy was the leader of the SEAL platoon featured in the book/movie ‘Lone Survivor’. He was killed in action trying to get his team rescued, sacrificing his life for others. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and our nation named a ship after him, USS Michael Murphy.

It would be an honor to meet the parents who raised a man with the beliefs and strength of courage to give his life to save others. I would like to thank them for their service.