Cool Offices: Marine Turned Money Manager Keeps His History Alive (Video)
By Sara Gilgore, Digital Producer at Washington Business Journal
Walk into David Armstrong’s personal office and an explosion of color pulls your eyes to the opposing wall. Vibrant hues splattered over an orange backdrop mimic the drip-painting style Jackson Pollock made famous. Nearly illegible, the letters “CM” hide in the bottom-right corner of the abstraction. History hides in the art.
But look around, and the occupant’s backstory comes into focus.
The Monument Wealth Management co-founder and co-president served as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps on active duty from 1990 to 1997. And his office is filled with photographs and mementos from his military days as well as colorful furniture perhaps uncharacteristic of a stereotypical financial services firm — and inspired by that painting.
The artist, Chris Morgan, was among the Marines that Armstrong led on a six-month deployment. Armstrong was a 26-year-old senior officer “in charge of these young knuckleheads,” he remembers affectionately. Morgan was one of his “discipline problems.”
Fast forward to the days of Facebook, and the two reconnected online. Then one day, a package arrives, with a marker-scribbled letter on the back of the canvas. The painting, it says, represents their time together, with meaning behind each color. It’s messy up close, but when you take a step back, it’s actually really cool, Armstrong explains.
“It’s one of my most prized possessions,” he says.
The painting became the catalyst for the office’s motif. Its bright orange and blue splashes seemingly spill off the wall and into the room, onto the electric blue seats beneath the painting and vivid orange chairs on both sides of Armstrong’s desk.
“I can’t put that on the wall in my house,” Armstrong says, gesturing to the painting. “This is not what my interior décor looks like, so I get to have a little bit of a different man-cave kind of place to come.”
Armstrong’s laptop isn’t hooked up to the monitors on the table behind him — he works on the big table in the open suite with his colleagues most of the time. He’ll prepare for client meetings in his office, for instance, but he’s only closed the door on a handful of occasions. The cheery design and lack of clutter make it functional for him.
“This is my personal, private creative space,” Armstrong says. “I do a lot of strategic thinking and brand messaging, and I write the blog, so I create a lot of content. This is my space where I can get away from the noise and think.”
On the fourth floor at 1701 Duke St. in Old Town Alexandria, about 5,800 square feet are home to a team of 12 people. The firm moved here three years ago from a smaller, more traditional office in the same building. Before that, the company lived across the street, in an even smaller 18-month sublet from the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
Armstrong began investing money with his dad’s guidance during his Marine Corps days, after which his first job was at Wall Street firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette in New York. Its corporate merger with Credit Suisse moved him to the D.C. area, where he met his current business partner, Dean Catino. They eventually hatched a plan to go into business for themselves, which came to fruition in May 2008.
Monument Wealth Management opened for business right before the economy took a turn for the worst.
“I was scared out of my mind,” Armstrong says. “But what we didn’t realize was that it was actually a vehicle for growth. While all of the big firms were fighting a perception battle with Wall Street and Main Street, we were messaging, ‘We’re something different, so if the current financial crisis has caused you to reconsider who you’re doing business with, come talk to us.’ We kept growing the practice, and all of a sudden it just started taking off.”
The firm, which the Washington Business Journal named as one of its 2015 Best Places to Work, now has an open floor plan. Transitional areas, like the putting green and television corner, could be converted to additional workspace. Armstrong likens the work itself to that of a “creative design agency,” and says the office reflects that creativity. His personal office is likewise a far cry from those in the firm’s previous home, with big, heavy company furniture.
Tokens and gifts from Armstrong’s time in the military — his ribbons in a display box, an artillery shell replica, coins from his work as commanding officer, and a knife inscribed with the phrase, “Once a Marine, always a Marine” — sit on the windowsill that stretches across the back of the room.
Photographs from deployments are protected in frames propped against the glass. There he is a block away from where the events depicted in the movie “Black Hawk Down” took place, in Mogadishu, Somalia; on the border of the Western Sahara and Morocco; and on the border of Iraq and Kuwait.
A framed guidon, which represents a unit’s commanding officer, is mounted on the wall. The Marines Armstrong led for two-and-a-half years signed it for him. An engraved quote of his reads, “Being a marine isn’t something you do, it’s something you are.”
These pieces of Armstrong’s history double as conversation starters, he says, and will have a presence in his next office, should the firm move. Its existing lease would have to be renewed by the end of the year. Either way, Armstrong says they don’t plan to leave Old Town.
He says he hopes to have a similar personal office in the new space, and for the shared area to be both “a place where clients want to come” and “a destination for people who come to work everyday, too.”