Distill Marta Norton down to a single word and “persistence” is likely to rise to the surface. It expresses itself during her morning jogs, it is the fulcrum of her educational and professional success, it is what she looks for in the people she seeks to hire.
It is the characteristic that matters most to her and proves elusive to many people.
“A lot of us can work hard for a short period of time, but what can really drive success is the willingness to work hard always, without stopping,” she observes. “Work is hard, life is hard, and you have to be willing to get up and do it again the next day. Persistence is the real difference maker.”
By way of example, she points to children, many of whom are bright and capable of coasting their way to the minimal expectations in life. Then there are the average kids for whom nothing comes particularly easy but are willing to expend the sustained time and energy to meet their goals.
“It is often the average kids willing to gut it out who can have a much bigger impact and much more success over time.”
It’s also the indispensable characteristic that carried Norton through an erratic career start and into a starring role as chief investment officer for the Americas at Morningstar Wealth.
Norton now factors her notions about persistence into the hiring process. An ardent reader, it disappoints her that fewer people seem to be reading books and are instead “thinking in Twitter feeds” and less in novel form. Some ideas are complex and require more than a social media posting or even a magazine article to flesh out to a meaningful degree, she reasons.
“I love magazine articles; I read articles all the time, but to really marinate in something you want to explore it in its fullness, I don’t think articles can take the place of books,” she says, adding that two of her recent titles she has read include The Best Minds (a book about mental illness) and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. A favorite she is inclined to recommend is Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which Norton says conveys a strong message for investors who are always looking for narratives in price movements.
“It has been a great check on my own worst impulses,” she says.
Of course, being a reader of books requires the kind of sustained persistence Norton prizes. Add humility and a stomach for uncertainty to the formulation. Investing itself requires the ability to deal with uncertainty, she remarks, and humility is essential to ensuring a person doesn’t make the mistake of always thinking they’re right.
“If you think you’re right and are dealing with an uncertain future, you are bound to get yourself whipsawed one way or another.”
THE MORNINGSTAR VOICE
Norton recalls reading a half-dozen books in prepping for her 2005 interview at Morningstar, for which she arrived with a notepad filled with questions.
“I wanted to put my very best foot forward,” she says. “I knew if I was going to succeed, I was going to have to succeed through my own effort. No one was going to give me a gold medal if it wasn’t gold medal work.”
She was hired into what is now called the Manager Research Group as an ETF analyst. It was the career turning point Norton had been searching for, the first time in her young career that people believed in her.
“At Morningstar I was being judged by my own work, my own product, and that was a pretty important experience for me,” she says. “It’s something I want to give other people on my team, that sense of ownership, that they own the good or bad outcomes that come from their work.”
Buttressed by the Morningstar hierarchy’s belief in her, Norton’s self-assurance went into full bloom.
“Learning to believe in myself has been a really powerful thing,” she says.
She was quickly indoctrinated into — and began espousing — the so-called Morningstar Voice, simply described as the ability to take complex ideas and distill them to everyday language.
“It seems so many folks in the financial industry want to layer jargon on top of jargon to make themselves and the idea sound more and more complex,” she explains. “Morningstar is moving in the exact opposite direction to try and make things sound more approachable and easier to understand, to help people make a decision.”
There were other elements to her Morningstar indoctrination, including her decision to begin saving and investing aggressively while still in her 20s, banking on the Morningstar catechism around financial planning. Then again, Norton acknowledges that it’s her nature to save.
“I like the idea of having safety nets.”
Early in her Morningstar experience, Norton was on the road weekly, meeting with financial advisers and discussing the financial products she represented. Advisers, she says, are asked to be the jack of all trades in providing investment advice to their clients. Her value proposition was to offer portfolios and explain their construction and purpose in the layman’s Morningstar Voice, aimed at achieving the investor’s end goals.
Even with the newly minted chip of self-confidence sitting atop her shoulder, Norton confesses to being hesitant to accept her current leadership role as chief investment officer of the Americas for Morningstar Wealth. That hesitancy was rooted in the false notion that a leader is the person who has all the answers and tells her minions what to do. In time, though, she realized the outcomes on which she and the organization depended were driven by her team members, and her best expression as a leader was to point staffers in the right direction and remove any internal or external obstacles that impeded their progress. She now measures her effectiveness as a leader by her ability to smooth the path and get the best out of her people.
Norton and her investment team are situated within the Morningstar Investment Management unit with $249 billion in assets under management and advisement. Scaling up, Morningstar Investment Management is one of four distinct businesses contained within Morningstar Wealth, the other three being Morningstar Office (portfolio management software), Morningstar investment data aggregator ByAllAccounts, and the individual investor experience across Morningstar.com.
Norton resides in the Elmhurst suburb of Chicago, where she lives in a converted old farmhouse dating back 100 years. She always cherished old homes with creaky, uneven floors, and the character that comes with aging residential structures.
“I always had this dream of having a house that I lived in for a long, long time, and I was able to renovate and make our own and make it beautiful in a place that felt right to me and to our family, and we have that. There is so much history there. It’s really fun to be a part of that.”
Though an inveterate saver, it is the house, her most prized possession, on which Norton spends liberally — upgrading, restoring, touching up.
Norton attended Wheaton College in the Chicago area, where she briefly majored in pre-med before settling on economics, a decision that likely pleased her father, a professor of economics and finance.
“It was surprising to me how much it resonated,” she recalls. “I think my first class was Intro to Microeconomics and some people said it was a difficult class, but from my perspective it was just the way I had been thinking all along. The professor would be describing diminishing marginal returns and I am like, ‘Yeah, I know this, I have been making decisions like that all my life.’ It just felt very natural.”
Perhaps it was in the blood.
Still, she considered a career in law the mostly likely eventual career path.
Upon graduation she accepted a position with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a beneficiary of the federal agency’s efforts to recruit college grads. In short order, Norton became restless at BLS, anxious to explore the potential for a legal career, as well as something faster paced. She departed the agency after one year, but not before she wrote a paper about beef and cattle prices in an effort to make a mark for herself and draw attention to her presence.
“I cannot recall why I settled on cattle and beef,” she says. “I was kind of searching around, looking at the different indexes, looking at different price movements and probably ended up putting together that research. I think it was published after I left the organization.”
Norton took a position with the Evanston, Ill., office of LECG Corp., which provided economic consulting related to litigation. For example, if a company was accused of unfair competition or anticompetitive behavior, it might hire an expert witness from LECG to testify on its behalf about matters such as market size and the number of competitors.
Norton figured it suited her at the time because it was closely related to her college studies and gave her a window into the legal field. Alas, within six months Norton knew she was misplaced.
“It gave me a lot of career clarity,” she says, “because it helped me understand that I wasn’t really interested in law school.”
What’s more, the future was limited at LECG (though unbeknownst to Norton at the time) as the firm went bankrupt and was liquidated in March 2011.
The employment search began anew. Fortunately, Norton’s father had career advice to offer his daughter.
“I was chatting with him about not feeling like my job was the right fit for me, and he recommended finance. My sister was in finance, and he had a lot of experience in finance,” she recounts.
He recommended checking into Morningstar — a company Norton had not yet heard of — for a few reasons, including its headquarters presence in Chicago, its big brand name, and that he used the company’s research in making his own investment decisions. Encouraged by what she heard, Norton headed to the career center at Wheaton College, her alma mater, to investigate whether any fellow grads were Morningstar staffers. She found a few names and reached out to them in pursuit of open positions at the company.
“That was the catalyst,” she says.
She arrived at Morningstar without much investment moxie.
“I literally was making the world’s worst investment decisions because I was just looking at recent performance. It was pretty nonsensical.”
That was then. Today, having been steeped in years of investment fundamentals, Norton acknowledges that, while performance matters, it’s critical to have a firm understanding of a fund’s strategy, expense ratio, and the stability of its management team.
“Don’t evaluate the outcome,” she advises, “evaluate how you’re making your decisions.”
A TELLTALE PHONE CALL
Sean Klock, a Morningstar colleague, made the distant acquaintance of Marta Norton, noticing that she was so laser focused on the work at hand as to be almost unapproachable. He decided the prudent and strategic way to proceed was to ask her for an assist on a few work assignments, despite their working on different teams; while both were within the investment group, he was in sales, she sat on the investment team. She agreed to some of his requests while rejecting others.
Klock persisted. Norton began to take notice.
“You can tell a lot about a person by the way they work,” she specifies. “So, I had an interesting perspective on Sean that I don’t think I would’ve gotten if we hadn’t worked together.”
Such as the day she observed her future husband losing his cool when a conversation with a frustrated client grew heated. Given a few minutes of contemplation, Klock called the person back to apologize for his intemperate ripostes to the caller’s intemperate accusations.
Norton witnessed and took note.
“It was probably the right business decision, but I also think it was a personal decision to quickly restore peace and to take ownership of what maybe he didn’t do right. I really loved that, I loved that he put himself in the position to say ‘I am sorry and let’s restore this.’ I thought that was a really good sign of who he was.”
Eleven years later the marriage is steadfast and has produce three children, daughters Kinsey (10), Ellie (6) and a son named Saunders (4).
RUN LIKE THE WIND
Marta Norton is a runner, and she runs like she works — with great intensity.
“I can’t relate to people who say, ‘I went for an easy run today.’ I have never done an easy run in my life. I’m always going as hard as I possibly can. I do long runs, and I push myself throughout the entire run.”
Her morning run is at least five miles.
Norton started running like the wind as a youngster, while playing soccer, while sprinting for her college track team, as well as doing some cross country in high school.
Her father moved the family several times — mostly around the Midwest — to earn his Ph.D. and take advantage of professional opportunities. They did stints in St. Louis (where they moved shortly after she was born), Chicago, and Ann Arbor, Mich., among other stops. Also in tow was her older sister Inga, who works on Wall Street for Mizuho, the global Japanese bank.
It was that peripatetic lifestyle that has made her current home base, her single-family home in the Elmhurst suburb of Chicago, such a prized possession.
Despite the gastronomic influences of the Windy City, deep-dish pizza has touched Norton’s palate only a few times (“I am not a deep-dish person,” she says flatly, almost defiantly), as she prefers St. Louis-style pizza with its wafer-thin crust.
Reading continues to feature big in her daily life. With the many responsibilities she carries as a wealth executive, wife and mother, Norton finds time to read on the commuter train, and during evenings, weekends and even while walking. Much of that reading is focused on team building and leadership, though she also packs some good novels into her reading lineup.
A BIG ASSIST FROM A BIG NAME
Morningstar was founded out of the home of Joe Mansueto in 1984 after he noticed individual investors were making decisions based solely on trailing returns. His intent was to provide investors with the data and analysis required to make more profitable choices.
Mansueto, now a billionaire, remains majority owner of Morningstar and serves as the organization’s executive chairman.
After many years of mutual fund analysis, Morningstar’s coverage of exchange-traded funds was just getting started when Norton joined as an ETF analyst in 2005.
Among the many people who served as unofficial mentors to Norton was Christine Benz, director of personal finance and retirement planning at Morningstar, and the author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances, and Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success.
“When I joined the research group I was, of course, new to finance, I was new to investing, and I was a very deliberate, diligent person. So, I’m working nights and weekends trying to discover the Morningstar Voice and learning how to tell a good fund from a bad fund, and Christine Benz, who is a big name at Morningstar, was a senior team member, and the edits she would give me were robust and helpful,” Norton said during a 2022 Bloomberg Masters in Business podcast. “It helped me understand things much better. … It was just the kind of endorsement and encouragement I needed, and that’s the special thing about Morningstar, the idea that nobody’s too big to help someone else grow in their career.”
As she looks to the future, Norton finds motivation in the “massive improvements” being made in individual investor’s experience, as underscored by the slashing of expense ratios, the proliferation of new investment vehicles, and the move toward direct indexing that pulls together and gives clarity to the proper selections for investor portfolios.
For her part, Marta Norton continues speaking in the company’s signature Morningstar Voice — and doing so with her signature persistence.
Mike Consol (firstname.lastname@example.org) is senior editor of Real Assets Adviser. Follow him on Twitter (@mikeconsol) and LinkedIn (linkedIn.com/in/mikeconsol) to read his latest postings.