Samuel Norvell  Director, Investments, The Annie E. Casey Foundation
Samuel Norvell 

“Sam often will joke that he is like a dog with a bone, but it is absolutely true. He thinks critically about every aspect of an investment strategy or manager, is tenacious in his due diligence, and doesn’t comprise on the high standards he has for himself and investment partners who manage capital for the Casey Foundation. He is an astute investor and portfolio manager who painstakingly rebuilt our portfolio of diversifying strategies to achieve performance that we are proud of. He also relishes building relationships with peer investors and investment managers to identify new opportunities and is always willing to jump in to help me or any colleague so that we can make better investment decisions. Sam’s dedication, hard work, insightful ideas, and sense of humor make him a much appreciated member of the investments team and the foundation.”

May Ng, vice president and CIO, The Annie E. Casey Foundation

Samuel Norvell has always had an interest in the stock market. When he graduated with a business degree from Georgetown University, just after the tech bubble burst in 2002, he found his way to New York City. He started working for the Hennessee Group, a boutique hedge fund consulting group that was a pioneer in the sector, with deep ties to a few North Carolinian hedge fund titans. For much of his career, he has worked in alternative investments, like hedge funds, with family offices, endowments and foundations, and high-net-worth individuals. 

The astute investor spends half his time reading and understanding the people around him. And his ability to build and maintain relationships with external managers has helped him select some great investors for his portfolio at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, where he is now in his fifth year as the director of investments.

Norvell oversees about one-fifth of the total assets for the $3.6 billion foundation, which, in the most recent fiscal year, returned 21.3%, as of December. His hedge fund portfolios returned 27% for the long-short allocation, and about 11% for the absolute return portion. For Norvell, his job still makes him feel as though he is a kid in a candy store. 

“It’s really wonderful to wake up and do what I do for an organization that makes the world a better place,” Norvell said. 

CIO: How would you deal with rising inflation and interest rates?

Norvell: We are not going to deviate from our long-term strategic asset allocation. Within our framework, we have shifted toward owning more reasonably priced, quality-oriented companies with durable growth and pricing power. We are overweight diversifying strategies and underweight fixed income, where we have higher-than-average allocation to inflation-protected securities.

CIO: What are your favorite alts, and why? 

Norvell: What is an ‘alt’? An alternative investment? An altcoin? I don’t have a good answer to either. I generally focus on public assets, and I am a big fan of ‘alpha.’ My favorite investment is one that can generate +500 bps [basis points] of annualized, unlevered alpha over a medium- and long-term period in an understandable and sustainable way. If you put that in a structure with appropriate liquidity and fair fees, I want to be an LP [limited partner].

CIO: Is cryptocurrency a flash in the pan, or an asset of lasting value?

Norvell: Crypto has occupied an embarrassing amount of mindshare recently. My original belief was that crypto is just pure speculation. However, my view has evolved a little bit, and I’ll admit it is possible that there is something there of lasting value. That said, any value is overwhelmed by current speculative behavior and, despite some effort, lack of personal conviction. I cannot build an investment thesis around it, other than maybe from a venture capital perspective. Lucky for me, we have someone much smarter on our team that is responsible for venture… 

CIO: How will the pandemic have changed the economic/financial world?

Norvell: I oscillate between the belief that this forced experiment was long enough to solidify new habits and behaviors with the fact that human beings have short memories and a tendency to revert to past behavior. I hope there will be lasting changes that increase productivity, reduce waste, and improve work/life balance. 

CIO: Where do you see the most exciting areas to specialize further over the coming years?

Norvell: I am excited that I do not have to specialize in the coming years. I believe most of the lines drawn between asset classes are arbitrary. One of the best things about this career is the ability to be creative and surprised in where you find new ideas.

CIO: What asset class or investment troubles you most right now—and why?

Norvell: I am always troubled by all asset classes … especially right now. 

CIO: What should be an investment trend, but isn’t (yet)?

Norvell: Making money shorting stocks. 

CIO: What investing decision have you made that you’re most proud of?

Norvell: We make our investing decisions as a team. I am proud of how we handled 2020. Obviously, there were some major curveballs. We adapted, avoided making bad decisions, and executed on a handful of good decisions. Mix in a little bit of luck, and the foundation had one of its best performance years on record, resulting in a meaningful step-up in our assets and providing more resources available to support our charitable mission. I am proud to have played a part.

CIO: Who is the manager you don’t currently work with whose brain you’d most like to pick for an hour?

Norvell: I can’t pick one … that is what makes this job so interesting. A few names (in no particular order): David Tepper, Chris Hohn, Nicholas Sleep, Ken Griffin, Zhang Lei, and Gabe Plotkin. If anyone wants to grab a coffee, I’ll treat.

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