A unique animal in the seas of finance
by Joel Groover
November 04, 2013 12:00 AM | 2286 views | 0 0 comments | 28 28 recommendations | email to a friend | print
From left, Matthew Burton, owner with Barry Mathis, president and chief operations officer at Narwhal Capital Management. (Jennifer Carter/Staff)
From left, Matthew Burton, owner with Barry Mathis, president and chief operations officer at Narwhal Capital Management. (Jennifer Carter/Staff)
With its unicorn-like tusk and Arctic habitat, the narwhal is one of the more unusual creatures in the sea. Matthew Burton and Barry Mathis - the duo at the helm of Marietta-based Narwhal Capital Management - see this uncommon marine mammal as a fitting symbol for their boutique wealth-management firm. 

“A lot of our competitors rely on a set formula: They might have 600 clients, and if you come to them with $750,000, they’ll just plug in the numbers for allocation,” said Mathis, president and COO. “At Narwhal, we offer a much more customized and service-oriented solution. Our approach is to create an individualized strategy for our clients based on their specific goals for investing.”

With $475 million in assets under management, Narwhal ranks among metro Atlanta’s top money management firms. And yet its client base — 25 high-net-worth families and privately owned businesses — is relatively small. This helps Burton, a chartered financial analyst and Narwhal’s founder and CEO, forge closer ties with individual clients, Mathis said.

“Matt is a true portfolio manager who has been at this since 1994,” he said. “On a daily basis, he dives into the research and places trades based on investors’ specific needs.” These efforts might involve deciphering the impenetrable fine print on a bond issue, or just chatting with families about how their kids’ upcoming marriages or graduations might change their needs, Mathis said.

An avid outdoorsman who loves poetry, single-malt scotch and even the occasional expedition to Antarctica or Africa, Burton hung a shingle for Narwhal in 2005 back when the market was roaring. But having witnessed the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s, Burton had already embraced a conservative investment philosophy, he said. The cornerstone of this was a focus on the actual cash flow of prospective investments, which led him to be wary of the analysis-resistant complexity of institutions such as AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch. Thus Narwhal was underweighted in ill-fated financial and insurance stocks when the next bubble burst.

“When all of that came through in 2008, the S&P 500 was down 37 percent,” Burton recalled. “But on the equity side, our valuation models and cash-flow analysis allowed us to minimize losses and outperform the market. For total portfolios, we were able to diversify across assets by allocating to fixed-income positions and even commodities. This further limited losses for our clients.”

While Narwhal negotiated these rough seas better than some, the crisis underscored the wisdom of caution, Burton said. “The world of the stock market is split between people who are all about future earnings and estimates — kind of pie-in-the-sky — and those who focus on long-term, methodical investing,” he said. “We’re firmly in the latter camp.”

And so Narwhal is not a fit for those who want to abandon portfolio diversity and chase go-go stocks, Burton said. Indeed, both Burton and Mathis say they’re committed to keeping all things in proper perspective. Burton hired Mathis, an accomplished business executive with experience ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, earlier this year to spearhead efforts to grow Narwhal and its services. The two have known each other for 25 years, having met on the campus at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. A student of John Calvin’s theology, Burton even co-wrote a book about Calvin’s impact on commerce. He operates his own charitable foundation, Invisible Hand.

“This is not all about us; there is something much bigger,” Burton said. “For me, the concept of a long-term view really includes a long-term view.”

Matthew D. Burton

Title: CEO, Portfolio Manager

Age: 45

Education: B.S. — Samford 1989 | MBA — Georgia State 1992 | CFA charter-holder

Family: Married to Mary, with five children: Luke, 19, Mary Grace, 15, Will, 15, Esther, 13 and Lydia, 7.

First Job: Paperboy

Best Job: Narwhal Capital Mgt.

Lessons Learned: Trust your gut if it sounds too good to be true.

Advice: Be bold but be disciplined. 

Barry L. Mathis

Title: President and COO

Age: 46

Education: BS in Business Administration — Samford University

Family: Married to Stephanie, with two children: Harrison, 11 and Emma Grace, 9

First Job: Real estate sales

Best Advice Received: Know the “guiding principles” for your life and filter all that life throws at you through those principles.

Greatest Professional Learning: People are your greatest asset. To grow any company, build the right team and commit to helping your people be successful.

Advice to the Next Generation: Life is filled with opportunities to complain. Instead, choose to be make a positive impact by always being part of the solution!

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