Fred Martin, founder and lead portfolio manager of Disciplined Growth Investors (DGI), isn’t afraid to stand out from the crowd. He marches to the up-tempo beat of his own drum, and where Martin goes, people follow.
Growing up in a small Indiana town with a father who was a stock broker, Martin squirreled away his boyhood pennies and bought his first stock at 12 years old. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in economics from Dartmouth College and an MBA from their esteemed Tuck School of Business, where, he said, “I remember I didn’t learn much. All I wanted was to figure out stocks.”
Martin did figure out stocks.
After his distinguished service as a United States naval officer, earning the U.S. Navy Achievement Medal and the Navy Commendation Medal, Martin entered the financial world and was offered a position at Mitchell Hutchins Asset Management. “They had a fledgling money management operation with almost no assets and wanted me to join that. I moved to Chicago and started landing customers.”
Martin’s genius for money management helped him grow a large and loyal community of clients, and in 1997, he boldly struck out on his own to found DGI. “I wanted to do it right,” he said. “If you’re going to have high performance stats, you can’t do it like everybody else. You do it differently, or you’ll have the same numbers. Being different is perceived as a risk in our business, but I believe it takes good investment with really good client servicing if you want to stay around long enough to work your magic.”
Now, with roughly $5 billion in assets under management at DGI and customers spanning individual investors to major state pension funds, Martin has worked his magic and proven the value of being different.
DGI is intrinsically different in that it has no secretaries, everyone’s work is considered equally important, and everyone’s office is the same size. (The corner office is reserved for storage.) In an environment where humility is fundamental, excellence is free to emerge organically. The company never rests on the laurels of past achievements, but is constantly monitoring its commitment to mission and purpose through surveys conducted by an outside consulting firm. And, as any good financial adviser knows, the proof is in the numbers. DGI tracks its own cultural health on a quarterly basis, and to date, the company enjoys an average employee tenure of 9.75 years; a client tenure of 10.2 years; and a holdings tenure of about 10 years.
According to Martin, success also requires purpose, and he describes DGI’s behavioral values as an unspoken currency that fuels the organization’s purpose – enriching people’s lives through long-term investing. This purpose manifests in a well-articulated culture. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on our culture. In our opinion, every firm has one, but the question is, does the culture help to achieve the mission of the firm or hinder it? We’re not only enriching people’s lives monetarily, but in lots of ways. Part of our culture is to serve a cause greater than ourselves. People will work twice as hard if the purpose is greater than themselves.”
Martin is adamant that once defined, culture must come from the top down, and he’s unapologetic about declaring that he learned the art of servant leadership by studying the best – Christ. “Once you say you want to have a culture, the head person has to live by it. You can’t say you want it, but it’s for the rest of you. It’s a privilege for me to lead such a great bunch of people. They don’t work for me; I work for them. With a servant-based model of leadership, I don’t distinguish between serving employees and customers. From a leadership standpoint, Christ has had an incredible effect on me and my attitude toward money. We don’t own the money – we’re just renting it from God for our lifetime. It’s about what kind of steward you are.”
Martin explains that all of this results in a state of relational health that empowers his company to help its clients “handle the vagaries of tomorrow. We’ve made more progress in down markets than up markets because of our process. We don’t waste emotional units on what we can’t control. There’s a lot we can control internally, so we focus on that.”
That internal focus has been vital as Martin has developed his own 14-year succession plan, transitioning from his role as DGI’s CIO to that of its lead portfolio manager, while growing leaders within the company who will continue DGI’s legacy of values and purpose. The change has also opened the way for Martin’s next passion project – Objective Measure.
Inspired Investment Leadership is a nonprofit organization created by Martin for the purpose of giving back to the industry he loves by hosting a series of conferences titled Objective Measure. More than an organization – it’s a movement with a two-fold mission of empowering investment clients to participate in their own financial wellbeing; and providing financial professionals with the ethical guidance to raise the standard of service in the industry.
Inspired by his association with The Willow Creek Association and its two-day Global Leadership Summit, which regularly transforms faith, business and community leaders in 60 countries, Martin is channeling his 44 years as a professional investor into a purpose greater than himself. “Increasingly, the way clients are being treated by the industry breaks my heart. I’ve watched clients do stupid things, and I’ve watched people take advantage of them. Our industry is ranked dead last for trust. I think when you know a lot about an area, it’s your responsibility to do something about it. I want to change the world.”
Objective Measure will host its first conference Oct. 5, 2017, at the Ames Center in Burnsville. Martin and six other dynamic and multidisciplinary speakers will deliver a rigorous, fun and paradigm-altering presentation of ideas, with a goal of challenging the industry’s status quo and inspiring greater trust and collaboration between clients and financial advisers.
“In my dream, the audience will be half clients and half investment professionals,” Martin explained. “My goal is to have attendees walk out rocked by the speakers, and for them to go back to their offices and replay the conference sessions for everybody. Trust in the industry is so low, and both parties are a part of that. I want to get both sides into a room and talk about how to bring that trust up. I want to empower clients to ask the right questions and appeal to people in the industry with the idea that instead of going home at night saying it was just another day but the pay is pretty good, they could be saying, ‘I helped people today. I made an impact.’”
Martin has put up the funding to sustain Objective Measure for the next 10 years, and will continue to bring people together from different sectors and points of view to transform the financial services landscape. “We want to move customers from a position of blind trust to one of confident trust, and take away the sense of outrage and helplessness they sometimes feel. At the same time, we want to give industry professionals, especially middle managers, the courage to go back to their companies and insist that clients come first. We want them to have a sense of purpose and enjoy their work. It’s not about how wonderful DGI is; it’s about moving the industry and people. This is my baby. I’m on a one-man crusade to start a movement.”
This outspoken, unconventional, high-energy businessman who co-pilots the company jet and enjoys dancing long into the night with the wife he adores, is just the man to lead a good-old-fashioned, grassroots movement for change. He is a man who acts boldly and with purpose. “I believe we can change the world together,” he said, “one person at a time.”