At night after work, when private wealth manager Michael W. Cartwright is alone in his studio, he is driven by the fictional fate of Kerwin, a pack rat; Krups, a cat; and Bug, a bug.
Kerwin was born in the Swiss Alps but while playing inside a tunnel, he fell onto an oncoming train. The next thing he knew, he was on an exercise wheel in a pet shop in Chattanooga, Tenn., not surprisingly the hometown of his inventor. Kerwin now lives with a fine local family. Don't ask how it all happened. Not even Cartwright can explain it.
The 45-year-old Cartwright, CEO and managing principal of Cartwright Hitching & Frazier, has penned a comic strip, called Ratzenkats, for two community newspapers for the past year. He hopes to attract a national audience through syndication and perhaps create comic books.
"It's a perfect way to relax after a day at the office," says Cartwright, who manages $50 million in assets for 67 households. "I steer away from anything that would confuse a young reader or enrage an older one. There's no politics or religion, nothing controversial. I just want to give people a chuckle. I want them to grin or maybe laugh out loud and move on."
An advisor since 1984, Cartwright, associated with LPL, has two partners and two administrative staff. He also oversees an office in neighboring Brentwood, Tenn. In recent years, he has transitioned to fees, which now represent 75 percent of his business. He looks to push it to as much as 95 percent.
"In order to be a 21st century financial advisory firm, you just need to do it," says Cartwright. "I feel it's better for clients. I know my own stress level has dropped dramatically. I can be more flexible in my hours." And it's freed up the time to allow him to pick up cartooning again.
Cartwright, a watercolorist and woodworker, drew his first cartoon, Mr. Snowman, when he was in first grade. The strip is about a snowman and his best friend, a dog who is made of snow as well. Next came Maddie Brothers, a fourth-grade creation involving mountain climbers who fly planes. All along, he reproduced strips like Peanuts and Beetle Bailey. "It satisfied a creative yearning," he notes. "Still does."
By high school, Cartwright dropped cartooning but he never gave up his drafting table and T-square. Four years ago, pondering what his retirement might look like, Cartwright found new inspiration.
"I started thinking about down the road, what would I do if I'm not advising clients? I'm not burned out by any means. I truly enjoy what I do today," says Cartwright, now a member of the Southeast Chapter of the National Cartoonist Society. "But what about later?"
Cartwright first tinkered with a strip called William's Point, which dealt with the goings on at a wealth management firm, its lead advisor and Amelia Air, who looks like her dog. Unsatisfied, he created Ambiguities, which centered on two ambiguous figures in conversation.
"They were both dead ends. I felt too detailed in my drawing and they were taking up too much time. I just wasn't happy with them," he says. "Then came Ratzenkats and the ideas just started flowing."
Kerwin, the European pack rat, is into everything and his friends are always bailing him out of trouble. Dialogue deals with everything from education, sports and the arts to finance, nature and philosophy. The strip is simple in its art form. Cartwright uses clean ink lines to avoid an overly busy strip.
He gets ideas for the strip at church services, walking to the mailbox or just lying in bed at night. He's captured close to 100 story ideas, and keeps them in his palm pilot.
His wife Cindy and son Daniel, 17, are his chief critics. "If he laughs, I know I've got something," says Cartwright, who has had no formal art training. "My wife can be tough. If she laughs or grins or says 'that's cute,' I know I'm OK."
Cartwright tries to draw every night and typically knocks out a strip in under three hours. It then goes to a printer who scans it and uploads it to the two papers, The Signal Mountain Post and Lookout Mountain Post.
"They're good, entertaining and comical," says Daryl Cole, editor of the papers. "His fictional characters are from a pet store in Chattanooga, but once you get past that, this is something anyone in the country would appreciate."
A former amateur race car driver, Cartwright's other interests include stamp collecting and cooking. Pork chops with blueberry sauce was one recent entr?e. Last Christmas, he baked gingerbread cookies for his clients.
"Some of my clients know I'm a cartoonist; the vast majority don't. The clients who do know, love it," says Cartwright. "But don't worry: I'm not giving up my day job."
Ellen Uzelac is a freelance writer and contributing editor of Research.