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The son and grandson of doctors, James Evans Stowers Jr. was born on Jan. 10, 1924 in Kansas City, Mo. A life-long Missouri resident, Stowers spent his formative years immersed in the Midwestern values and culture that would later serve him well in his various professional and philanthropic pursuits. It was at the historic Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo. that Stowers learned about discipline, organization and leadership. After graduating from the University of Missouri, he joined the Army Air Corps where he became a fighter pilot and gunnery instructor. Upon his return to civilian life in 1945, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserves and served as a captain until resigning his commission in 1957.
Given his family’s background in medicine, Stowers initially considered a career as a doctor. But frustrated by what he referred to as the “hassle” of becoming a physician, Stowers set his sights on the business world. After a stint selling mutual funds for Kansas-based Waddell & Reed, he founded a term life insurance firm – J.E. Stowers and Company – and in 1958, the money management firm Twentieth Century (later to become American Century Investments).
Relying on $100,000 in seed money from 24 investors and initially offering only two mutual funds, Stowers’ company has become one of the country’s top money managers serving individual and institutional investors. Current assets under management now top $100 billion.
In reflecting on the origins and success of his company, Stowers once wrote, “From the start of our company, we had a dream. That dream was to try to offer people only the best products and services – second to none.” In addition, Stowers wrote, “It was my belief that if we helped make people successful that they would in turn make us successful.”
Early in Stowers’ investment management career, he embraced a concept that would serve as the basic investment philosophy behind many of the portfolios offered by his money management firm. Stowers believed “money follows earnings,” meaning over time investors in the equity markets would gravitate to the best companies, primarily those experiencing earnings growth. He further refined this approach by only focusing on companies whose earnings and revenues were growing at an accelerating pace.
In the early 1970s, recognizing that computers could help streamline his stock analysis process, Stowers wrote his own proprietary computer program to help identify companies with the most desirable growth characteristics. Today, the “Stowers System” – as it was referred to by the Securities and Exchange Commission – is an integral part of the investment process guiding more than a dozen growth funds at American Century, including flagship fund Ultra.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, this computer-assisted stock selection process helped Stowers generate strong performance for investors and brought newfound celebrity to this folksy Midwestern entrepreneur and innovator. In early 1981, Stowers’ photo appeared on the cover of MONEY magazine, accompanied by a feature story about the success of his funds over the previous five-year period.
By the early 1990s, Stowers and his company were becoming household names in investing circles. With the Ultra fund racking up an amazing 86 percent return in 1991, a second wave of national attention helped the company double its assets under management in a single year. In recalling that period, Stowers said, “The fund was going way up and people were calling. Every time you’d hang up the telephone, it would ring again and we were just being drowned in calls.”
In addition, the 1990s marked the beginning of the company’s move beyond its successful domestic growth investment process into other investment disciplines including fixed income, international, value, asset allocation and quantitative equity. Also, the firm began to look beyond the retail marketplace to intermediaries and institutional asset management.
Just as Stowers was beginning to enjoy the fruits of his many years of hard work, his family was confronted with the first in a series of battles with cancer. Jim was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer in 1986 and his wife Virginia had surgery for breast cancer in 1993. Their middle daughter, Kathleen, struggles with cancer today.
Motivated by their own experience with the disease and a desire to give something back to the community that nurtured American Century into a successful enterprise, Jim and Virginia Stowers founded the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in 1994. Located on a 10-acre facility within view of American Century’s Kansas City headquarters, the Institute is now home to dozens of top scientists studying the way genes can be altered to prevent or slow disease.
In describing his reason for starting the Institute, Stowers said, “My wife and I wanted to give back something more valuable than money to the millions of people who made our success possible and we think that science is the best way we can do it.” The Institute is supported by a $2 billion endowment, primarily made up of securities and cash gifts from the Stowers family.
As Stowers became a septuagenarian, a point when many dream of retirement, he continued his crusade to help others improve their financial positions. He shared his investing insights and tips for financial self-sufficiency in the well-received book: “Yes, You Can…Achieve Financial Independence.” The book – one in a series of periodicals based on Stowers’ investment philosophies – is published through Stowers Innovations, a company he founded to help individuals improve their lives through financial, inspirational and motivational concepts.
Early in the new millennium, Stowers was chosen to be a torch-bearer for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, another achievement in the extraordinary life of an ordinary man. Broadcast on NBC Nightly News, Stowers’ torch run once again propelled the humble philanthropist and businessman onto the national stage. Perhaps the NBC reporter captured the essence of Stowers best when he described him as a man who’s given a “gold-medal performance in the generosity competition.”
The honor of carrying the touch was followed by Stowers being named Ernst & Young’s 2005 Entrepreneur of the Year in the Financial Services Category. In his acceptance speech for the prestigious award, Stowers said, “With both American Century and the Institute, the goal was never about self enrichment. Rather, the larger goal has been to improve the lives of others, either by helping them achieve financial independence or by conducting medical research into the causes and potential cures for devastating gene-based diseases.”
Reflecting on his long, full life and the traits necessary for prosperity in the business world, Stowers said, “I’m absolutely convinced that the only way we can earn the trust of our investors is to prove to them every day that we’re sincere about wanting to make them successful,” said Stowers. “To me, if you’ve got something to say, it should come from the heart. That’s why sincerity is one of the traits I admire most in someone.”