Mar 10, 2021

Range Interviews

Range Interviews

Last week we reviewed Range by David Epstein. This book offered a new and compelling perspective on the connection between broad past experiences and future success. As we alluded to in the review of the book, reading Range changed the way our client service committee looked at the career paths that led each of us to Narwhal. As we talked through past job experiences with this new perspective, we began to appreciate and value the seemingly unrelated roles that we had held previously and were able to generate countless examples of how those roles prepared us for our current jobs. Through this discussion, we realized that the amount of experience variety existing within our client service committee was staggeringly high, especially considering the committee's small size and the relatively young average age of the employees that make up the group. Motivated by our findings, we began to wonder what some of the more experienced Narwhal employees would be able to share on this topic. We conducted interviews with four Narwhal veterans (Matt Burton, Tom Russell, Ben Nye, and Andrew Hall) with questions to gather insight into the past roles that they held and how those roles were formative for them and their approach to the positions that they find themselves in today.

Matt Burton: Founder

What did you originally plan on doing with your career?

"I knew pretty early on I wanted to go to law school regardless of what I did. I wanted to go and see where that took me, not necessarily to be a lawyer, but to pursue justice. I was always really interested in getting into some type of law enforcement, specifically at the federal level. If not that, then becoming an investigator was something I always leaned toward. No matter what I did, the idea of pursuing justice had to be a foundational part of my career. With that being said, investing and being entrepreneurial in my investing had always been on my mind, but it wasn't until I got more exposure to the finance industry that I found that passion for justice within finance which ultimately gave me the conviction to make this my career. I had a realization in the 90s, after a little time in the industry, that managers of money we're making investing purposefully opaque for their clients. Clients didn't know how much they were paying in commissions; they didn't know what their performance was, there were hidden fees everywhere. The people that were supposed to be looking out for the clients were getting rich, and the clients weren't. I can remember doing an analysis one time in the mid-90s, trying to break down trading costs for a client at the firm where I was working, and in one year, a client that had about $20 million was paying over a quarter-million dollars in broker fees. Seeing examples like this within the industry was how I was able to satisfy the longing of pursuing justice within me that I had always been drawn towards. I knew that I could come into the industry, and even if I was an average portfolio manager, just by being fair and transparent, I could save people money immediately. This changed my perspective, gave me a true desire to be different in the industry, and made me very focused on the idea of being a steward vs. being an advisor. A steward is so closely aligned with the clients; they know them, they understand them, and as the client flourishes, so too does the steward. With someone that relates to a client from solely the advisor mindset, there isn't that true alignment. My early on desires and passions had a huge impact on how I wanted to approach and invest for my clients."

What all did you work through to get into your current role?

"I can look back and see two types of roles that were instrumental in getting me where I am today. I think those roles were a very interesting foreshadowing of where I would end up. The first type of role that was formative were those that required a strong entrepreneurial spirit. I was the guy that would go around and mow lawns for everybody, and I started my own tutoring business in college. One summer, I worked for someone as a window washer on high-rise buildings. I got comfortable with operating in that environment and knew how to handle a ladder, so I started cutting trees for people on the side. I always knew that I wanted to work for myself and those experiences were huge for the formation of that desire. The second type of job that I had that was formative for where I am now were the service-oriented roles. I was involved in campus ministries, I was a counselor at a high school camp, I always got a tremendous amount of satisfaction out of helping people. I've never really been extraverted, but the aspect of building relationships with people, understanding their needs, and then being able to minister to those needs directly was something I loved. On that same note, I've always thought that theology and economics were strongly linked. That, paired with our industry's service aspect, has always made me consider investing, the way we do it here, a form of ministry. Looking back, it was really those two types of roles that helped shape me."

What were some impactful lessons or skills that you learned through seemingly unrelated experiences/former roles, and how are they utilized in your role now?

"I'll start with something a little more straightforward and then something a little bit deeper. One lesson I learned that has always stuck with me is something I took away from my time as a window washer. There are moments as a window washer when you're 50 feet up in the air, and you have to try and reach the top corner of a window, and the only way to do it is to commit 100%. That means you've got one arm reaching out to the corner of the window, and you're leaning way out with just one leg barely reaching back as the only thing that's stabilizing you on the ladder and stopping you from falling. The only way to be able to do the job was to commit. You couldn't reach that spot on the window if you kept both feet on the ladder. That image stuck with me through every other job I ever had. Even now in portfolio management, when we are considering opportunities, there's a little voice in my head that says, "if you like it, commit, don't go halfway, get in all the way," and that's just really stuck with me. "Fortune favors the bold," that's not my quote; I don't know who quoted it, but it's true."

"Alright, now for something a little different than what you asked, I'm about to go a little off the reservation here. I'm thinking less about skills and more about experiences outside of what you could read in a textbook or learn on the internet that have shaped my career. This is a specific type of experience that I think makes someone a good investor. It's the first thing that comes to mind right off the bat when I think about important experiences. I think tragedy, having experienced tragedy, having to deal with disappointment is one of the most formative experiences I've walked through. Part of my story is that my father died when I was young, he was only 62, and it was extremely unexpected. In just about that same period of time, a few months before my dad passed, I lost a son. I bring all this up to drive home the whole concept that, when you go through tragedy, you realize that, yeah, assets are important, and portfolio management is important, but at the end of the day, all that stuff doesn't really mean anything. We are all just an amalgamation of our hopes and fears, and aspirations. We don't think about it much, and we probably should think about it more, but the end game for all of us involves pain, everyone that I know is going to die one day. We hope for the best today that we can have with that thought that eventually, there is going to be suffering, there's going to be disappointment, so to get caught up in numbers and trying to build a massive net worth is just ridiculous. We need to be in a position where we can prepare people, we can assist them, and having assets in a portfolio is a part of that, but it's not the end all be all, so walking through those types of experiences gives balance, and it gives perspective. We need to go through those times in order to have a proper perspective of what a portfolio is worth and what it isn't worth."

Do you still spend time trying to learn new skills outside of what is applicable to your current role?

"In terms of new disciplines, in the last two years, I've gotten into long-range shooting. That's been awesome and has a ton of carryover into investing. Knowing what your target is, being patient, understanding your environment, knowing when to pull the trigger, the connections there are pretty much endless. This is probably not as applicable to any type of work, but I'm serious about trying to be the best snow skier I can possibly be. I'm relentless about pursuing that. I also love to work out, but that's not a new skill, that's just something I've always been refining."

Tom Russell: Director of Fixed Income

What did you originally plan on doing with your career?

"To be honest with you, I didn't really have a plan. I didn't have a huge interest in finance initially, but I randomly took a shot at an internship with Suntrust during college and was lucky enough to get that, and that led me to major in finance, so I really sort of stumbled into that field. That turned out to be a mistake at the time because I happened to graduate in May of 2009 at the absolute bottom of the market, but in general, I never thought I would be a financial advisor or a bond trader or anything like that. It just so happened to be the path of least resistance for me."

What roles did you work through to get to where you are today?

"My first real job ever was working in the meat department at Target. I cleaned out the meat grinder, cleaned the blood off the cutting block, all the dirty work, basically. After Target, I worked at Starbucks and then a really small real estate company. Toward the end of college, I got that internship at Suntrust. I finished up that internship and graduated college, but because of how tough the job market was in '09, I had to go back to work at Starbucks, being that it was basically the only job I could find. After a little time at Starbucks, I moved out to Seattle with a buddy of mine, trying to get any job that I could. I ended up taking a role as a cold caller on a bond desk with a company called Yield Quest. They were an odd-lot municipal bond trading platform that would sell individual bonds and build bond portfolios for advisors like Narwhal. My job with them was to call advisors and convince them to use us. I hated it. I hated cold calling; it was absolutely brutal. I had always hated making calls, but at this point, I was so desperate for an income that I had to gut it out. I was hired with 5 other people, and by the end of the year, I was the only one left. The other people they hired were as desperate as me when they came in, so the fact that they quit says a lot about how bad the work was. From there, I really wanted to find a job where I could make a better salary and not be forced to cold call, so I started coming into work early and sitting at the Bloomberg trying to learn more about how bonds worked, how I could sell more of them and ultimately make more money. To a certain degree, bond trading is more about pattern recognition and learning how bonds trade in relation to various factors. It's more art than analyzing a company's cash flows. I put in a ton of time and began to figure some of it out, and eventually, I got promoted onto the bond desk as a junior trader. I kept working hard and did well enough that I didn't have to cold call anymore. As a stroke of good luck, a lot of the traders at this company left and formed their own company, so I was able to move up and become a head trader in a relatively short period of time. After working in that role a while, I took a job in Atlanta with a small retail RIA. The founder of the firm needed someone on the fixed income side, and I was actually able to come in and reverse roles to become a buyer of bonds on the retail side instead of a seller of bonds on the institutional side. After my time with them, I had a few more stops before getting to Narwhal. In each role, my focus changed to a different area in fixed income; munis, corporates, closed end funds, mortgage backs; I got to see all sides of the industry. I eventually ended up at Narwhal and, because of all the perspective I had gained in all the different areas of the bond world, I was able to come in and be a jack of all trades here, which was a huge advantage."

What were some impactful lessons or skills that you learned through seemingly unrelated experiences/former roles, and how are they utilized in your role now?

"At Target, I learned a ton about discipline and what it takes to hold a job, even if the job wasn't all that glorious. At Starbucks, I learned about customer service. This was back in the day before Starbucks was a fast-food restaurant, and it was really important to get to know the customers, make them feel welcome; all that was critical, I enjoyed getting to be around all of them. I also liked when they left because they'd leave a bunch of newspapers lying around, so I got to do crossword puzzles for free all the time. I obviously use those customer service skills a lot now. The cold calling thing was crucial for me. Like I said, I hated talking on the phone. Back when I was at Starbucks, I had to call specific clients to ask them what flavor cake they wanted to have for their birthday. I can remember staring at the phone all day, not wanting to make the call, I was petrified to pick up the phone, and that wasn't even a hard call to have to make. Overall, that time of making calls at Yield Quest, I became comfortable with it and began to understand how to read people during a conversation to ensure that I could help them get what they needed out of it. Today I have no trouble getting on the phone and talking with clients. On top of all those softer skills, I obviously learned a ton through my experience in the bond market, figuring out all the nuances that's been hugely beneficial for me in my current role."

Do you still spend time trying to learn new skills outside of what is applicable to your current role?

"Absolutely, but not anything specific necessarily; I just like trying to expand my knowledge base in general. I watch Jeopardy every single night; that's pretty unrelated, but for me, having as much information as possible and storing it, even if it doesn't seem necessary, has always been something I've tried to do. And it's been really cool to see how all that information that's stored up plays out in client relations. I feel like I can talk to just about anyone because I've probably read or heard something about at least one area of interest that a client has. And I'm pretty much open to learning anything. I like weird books, weird bands, weird podcasts, and I don't eat vegetables. I guess I'm a little countercultural. I don't know; I just have a weird brain for picking up that kind of stuff and retaining it."

Ben Nye: Chief Investment Officer

What did you originally plan on doing with your career?

"I had always wanted to manage a hedge fund and thought that my path would be through the investment banking route. I was good with numbers, could write reasonably well, and knew a lot of history. I especially liked how numbers could paint a story and thought finance was the perfect marriage of these factors, so that was always the plan for me, but there wasn't always a clear path for me to get there."

What all did you work through to get into your current role?

"I was getting into the job market just after 2008 and 2009, so jobs in finance were scarce. I sold insurance (very poorly) for Farmers for a summer, going door to door as an 18-year-old kid trying to sell auto insurance with a goodie bag of candy, a business card, a flyer, and a very poor sales pitch. I eventually found myself as an unpaid intern in 2010 for a startup. Interestingly, I was actually rejected initially from the internship. With no job, I decided I would study for the GMAT during the summer and planned to wait out the recession with another two years in school. In early July, I got a call asking if I still wanted the job because the girl they hired instead of me had been fired. I had no shame and quickly took the position. In late 2010 I was offered the first of only two jobs I've ever been offered at real companies (I had my own side hustles in high school but didn't work for anyone). It was at a small Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) in Eugene, OR. Again, I seized it with both hands and started there when I graduated college in 2011. During my tenure, I started (and failed) at a tech business that I pursued on the side, sat on the Board, saw good success and some failure at the RIA, and received my CFA charter. When I was offered a job at Narwhal Capital (only my second job offer ever), I again seized on that."

What were some impactful lessons or skills that you learned through former roles, and how are they utilized in your current position?

"Learning Excel was a big one for me. In my unpaid internship, I had to teach myself Visual Basic. Although very frustrating at times, it was a key skill that has taught me significant problem-solving skills and a way to figure things out. This was something I couldn't have learned, or at least not to that level if I had taken a class on it. Learning it hands-on was much more impactful. Sharpening my writing skills and learning the importance of writing well was hugely important for my development. The easiest way I can discern someone's level of diligence, thoughtfulness, and intelligence is by how they write. I was fortunate to learn good grammar and practice it. I find I have been able to differentiate myself, especially when I was younger, by how I corresponded, how I utilized text messages, and by focusing on doing things right the first time. This is more of a lesson than a skill, but I began to see the value in under-promising but overdelivering throughout my career. I learned that setting easily beatable expectations externally (even while holding yourself to a higher standard) would serve me well, and I've increasingly adopted that in my professional and personal life. I have three quotes that come to mind that were very formative and relate back to my focus on learning the skills that I just discussed. These quotes were directed at me in a negative manner at the time but have yielded significant benefits. During my internship, I said I would work on a project while on vacation, and my boss (who had a tendency to be a bit crass) responded by saying, "Don't promise something you can't do." While I took that comment as a slight at the time, it was a valuable lesson to learn. Another moment during that internship, I wrote a one-pager on a potential competitor and ways that we could compete with that business. The formatting looked like something I would do for college. There may or may not have been a spelling error or two. He told me, "everything that you do here needs to be polished and good enough as if you were presenting to an outsider." The last quote was directed at me a few months into my job with the RIA. I was told, "you need to do better on the phone," and truth be told, he was right, I wasn't good. Phone skills are incredibly important and underrated, and I've improved that significantly over the years. I would say that the main overarching takeaway for me in all of this is that interdisciplinary knowledge and problem-solving are key and far more important than theory, in my opinion. Learning through experience, being willing to tackle different and sometimes unrelated things, and taking some lumps along the way, can be incredibly vital to your growth and success."

Do you still spend time trying to learn new skills outside of what is applicable to your current role?

Yes, I am always trying to learn new skills. Right now, I'm focusing a lot of my time on leadership and speaking skills. Those are two areas where I really want to see strides.

Andrew Hall: Vice President

What did you originally plan on doing with your career?

"I'll lead by saying certainly not this. I think if you had told me 11 or 12 years ago where I would be at today, I wouldn't have believed you. It just never seemed like something I would have enjoyed. That being said, I didn't really have a path that I envisioned. I really struggled in college with the idea of trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, and because of that, I wasn't a great student. I'm very results-oriented. When I have a goal, I am good at attacking it and achieving it, but I couldn't see that goal throughout school, so I had a hard time engaging. I think if you pressed me at the time, I would have said that I wanted to be a teacher and a coach. I've always loved sports and loved being around high school kids. I just think they are hilarious, so I think that was a leaning for me, but I was never fully set on that either. I always thought I would do something with a degree of competitiveness and transparency, which is very much aligned with what we do here; it's just very different than what I would have thought."

What all did you work through to get into your current role?

"I played basketball throughout high school and really treated that as my job. When my senior season ended, I was doing half days at school because I had already been accepted to college, so I felt like I needed to do something productive with my time. I decided to interview for a job a Bed Bath and Beyond kids. They were offering $7.25 an hour, which at the time was pretty good, so I was definitely excited about the opportunity. One of my buddies applied for the job as well and ended up getting the job over me. They called me and told me that I didn't have any work experience. My buddy had worked at Kroger bagging groceries for a few years during high school, so they gave the job to him. To this day, that's the only interview that I've done that I didn't get. It showed me the importance of having work experience, and it's crazy, but that really stuck with me. When I'm thinking about hiring and looking through resumes, the value of work experience is huge. So, I didn't get the job there, but a Belk had just opened up across the street, and they were hiring, so I applied. They paid $7.50 an hour but also gave you a cash bonus if you successfully pushed people to sign up for the Belk credit card, so, me being a competitive high school senior that wanted to make more money, I was really focused on pushing those credit cards. In hindsight, I probably learned some not so good lessons through that process, and it's pretty ironic considering what I do now that I led people to sign up for credit cards that they didn't need, but I also learned what sales shouldn't look like, so some good came out of that. I worked at Belk for 3-4 months and then went to work at a company that was owned by a guy at our church. It was a publishing company that published children's books for funeral homes that were supposed to help younger kids deal with the loss of a loved one. It was really weird and dark, but it was a great job because it was such a niche industry that you had established customers that made consistent orders. Other than the occasional big order, I didn't do anything and still was making pretty decent money. The worst job I ever had was in college working at the UPS store in Athens, but looking back, I learned a ton there, actually. I never realized how much the UPS store actually does, and it was crazy because they didn't train me up for any of it. They literally just told me to figure it all out. I was the low guy on the totem pole, so I had to work Saturdays by myself. When something came up, I couldn't ask any co-workers for help. There were so many things they did that I had no clue how to do, but I was forced to figure out. The summer before I took an internship at Narwhal, I worked at a gym, and I loved doing that. That was the first job that I felt like I was working hard and really enjoyed what I was doing. I got to interact with people all throughout the day, got to work out a lot, it was great. After that summer at the gym, I interned at Narwhal for the next two summers and then actually went back to work at the gym full-time. I was doing sales, then promoted to sales manager and finally general manager. I learned a ton in those roles. I was pretty much running a business there. I was responsible for running payroll, marketing, leading customer service, and hiring efforts, I had my hands full. I stayed in touch with Narwhal throughout all that time, and they mentioned to me that they were considering bringing on someone full-time. At the time that I was starting to hear from Narwhal, I had interviewed for a role as the general manager of an LA fitness. I was offered that job which sounded great to my 22-year-old self. Had Narwhal not offered, I would have taken that job, partially because I thought it would be a good fit but also because of how tough the job market was during that time. So again, I would have been thrilled to take that job until Narwhal called. Right before I took the job at Narwhal, I had started running a college football blog. I ran that from 2010-2015 in my downtime just for fun. It started when I got married because Georgia was really bad, so I needed to be able to have an outlet to talk about it without running my wife off in the first 6 months of our marriage. I never envisioned making money off it, but it picked up steam pretty quickly. I had writers writing for me and started paying myself and the writers out of ad revenue. Again, I never thought I'd make money off of it. I was just really passionate about football. It got to the point that I considered becoming a sportswriter full-time. I loved it that much."

What were some impactful lessons or skills that you learned through seemingly unrelated experiences/former roles, and how are they utilized in your role now?

"I definitely see lessons learned when I look back at those past roles. I think back to Belk and how important the teamwork aspect of it was. I worked in the Men's department, and towards the end of the shift, when you had to straighten up before closing, it was quick work to get the men's section organized. Not to stereotype, but men don't walk into a department store and try on a bunch of pairs of clothes, they know what fits them, get it, and get out, but women, on the other hand, that section was always a disaster. I'd get so frustrated because I always had to go over to the women's section and help them get that department organized for the next day. I probably didn't realize it at the time, but I learned valuable lessons in how sections of a business supported each other to maximize the company's success as a whole. I see that a ton at Narwhal now, and that's something we've been intentional with trying to develop. Being able and willing to support groups in different segments is tremendously important. The lesson I take away from the UPS store is the importance of training up new employees. I could see, in real-time, how much of a disaster that was. That environment was something I didn't want to repeat for anyone that worked with or for me, so I took that lesson with me to my next job at the gym. I created a training manual that set a blueprint for employees coming in to do new member sales, which turned out to be really successful. The gym taught me a ton about setting goals and having a strategy of how to attain those goals. It was rare that my boss at the time would shoot down any ideas that any employee brought to him, but at the same time, if you presented a good idea, you needed to be prepared. You had to be the one that figured out what we were going do when we were going to do it, who we were going to do it for, what it was going to look like, what it was going to cost, what the outcome was going to be, and how we were going to determine if it was working or not. This was a great lesson for me to learn early on. Another takeaway from the gym that I picked up was the importance of the human aspect of a business. Granted, it was on a much smaller level than what we do here, but I learned the importance of being proactive in treating people right at the gym. If you make them comfortable and work hard to improve their experience, you will have sticky relationships. Another lesson that was hugely important for me was one I learned through running the sports blog. I learned that if you're passionate about something if you pour energy and effort into things that you're passionate about, more often than not, it tends to work out. This was crucial for my development at Narwhal. I saw the potential that Narwhal had as a firm, and as hard as it would be for me to turn away from sports writing, I wanted to try and apply the passion and energy I had for writing into how I performed at Narwhal. It was a conscious decision to do so. I had to turn that writing side off and focus on investing. By doing that, I ended up getting bit by the investment bug, fell in love with managing portfolios, and eventually reoriented my primary career goals around Narwhal. Outside of family and faith, my number one priority is to see Narwhal succeed. And having seen something so trivial as a sports blog succeed based off of passion and effort, I had a conviction that we could make it happen. I really believe that if you put effort into something, if you surround yourself with good people, and you're passionate about it, you can really grow something."

Do you still spend time trying to learn new skills outside of what is applicable to your current role?

"I spend a ton of time trying to learn about great leaders. Through this effort to learn what it takes to operate a business at a high level, and through some self-reflection, I've learned that operational efficiency is a weakness of mine. Because of that, I've spent a lot of time reading and listening to podcasts, talking to people who I view as good operators in an effort to try and pick up insight from them. Narwhal recently launched a client advisory board which is something I'm excited about. I think it is going to do a ton of great things for our firm, but for me, selfishly, I'm excited to get to talk with incredible business leaders that have so much knowledge on what it takes to run a business, so getting to pick their brains and sharpen an area that is a weakness for me is really exciting. Another thing that I truly enjoy, which is actually very related to my role, is studying the RIA industry. I spend a ton of time learning about the industry, trying to decern what other people are doing, what's working for them, seeing if it could work for us, etc. I've enjoyed getting to dig into all that and see what sort of insight I can gather."

John Grayson

Account Executive

John started at Narwhal as an investment intern in the summer of 2019 while working to complete his MBA at Auburn University. After finishing his schooling, John joined the Narwhal team in a full-time role as a client service associate in the summer of 2020. John has been tasked with servicing a portion of Narwhal’s younger client base as well as expanding the company’s management of outside 401k plans. Along with his MBA, John holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from Auburn.

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