Pinching Pennies Pays Off For Mutual Fund Guru

YOU might call Jim Stowers Jr., who, by his own estimate, is worth several hundred million dollars, something of a tightwad.

He recalls, with enthusiasm, the time a few years ago when he was shopping with his wife and they saw a designer dress on sale for $70, marked down from $700. Instead of buying it on the spot, Mr. Stowers returned the next day to get it for the final markdown price of $35.

Such financial prudence and perhaps good fortune have paid off for Stowers, founder and chairman of the board of Twentieth Century Mutual Funds, which manages $26 billion for more than 1.5 million investors. Twentieth Century Funds has become the nation's 18th-largest company of its kind since its humble beginnings in 1958.

''I naturally could be extravagant, but I think I'm probably tighter now than I was then,'' Stowers says from his spacious penthouse office overlooking downtown Kansas City, Mo. ''You want to be able to get the most you can for the least amount of money -- it's the same thing as when I was younger.''

''The biggest disease a millionaire has is being afraid of running out of his money,'' he continues, citing the words of a millionaire uncle. ''He's got the same identical problems as the person who has just a little bit of money, because a millionaire's expenses are a lot greater than the other person's.''

Frugality is a central theme in Stowers's book, ''Yes, You Can Achieve Financial Independence,'' which came out two years ago for shareholders and has more recently been released to the public. A simple textbook of old-fashioned values, supplemented with graphics and cartoons, the book advises families to count their pennies carefully to build a better tomorrow. One financial blunder that Stowers decries is Americans' growing propensity to buy on credit, often with credit cards.

''A lot of them don't understand, just like a kid going into a candy store,'' Stowers says. '' 'I want some of this [candy], I want some of this, and I want some of this!' Then they suddenly realize that they're in debt.''

Stowers recommends that all families save 10 percent of their salaries to build economic independence, funded by cutbacks in unnecessary expenses.

Other areas in which penny-pinching has paid off over the years: He would park several blocks from his office; and he and his wife would window shop for fun at Kansas City storefronts for free entertainment.

''If we didn't have money to buy what we wanted, we'd save money, then buy it,'' he says.

One Twentieth Century fund, Giftrust Investors, has hovered at or near the top of recent surveys for the best-performing mutual funds of the past decade. Yet other funds have scored far less impressively, especially in 1994, when many Twentieth Century investors lost money.

Last year, Stowers, once a Pied Piper to small investors, also became a little less friendly to his minions by raising the fund's minimum investment to $2,500. Before 1993, there was no such requirement.

''We had something like 400,000 people with less than $1,000 in their accounts,'' explains Stowers, who wears an ID badge at work. ''We can't sit here year after year [and] routinely lose millions of dollars.'' He refers to large administrative costs, such as sending out statements and answering phone queries.

Stowers's latest major venture is setting up a charitable fund to support cancer research -- the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, which was established last fall with an initial gift of $50 million in company stock. Stowers and his wife have designated in their will that a large chunk of their wealth go to the institute.

The commitment to the project could ultimately mean that part of Twentieth Century -- a private company owned mostly by the Stowers family -- will go public, because medical researchers will need cash, not company stock, to fund their work.

''The stock will pay dividends, and maybe some of the company will have to be sold at different times,'' he says. ''We'll probably have to go public sometime in the future because our company is getting bigger, and we have to make a market for the people who originally invested in the company.''

With his estate settled and his son, James III, already in charge of daily Twentieth Century operations, Stowers could retire and perhaps buy part of a tropical island or set sail on an extended luxury cruise. But he wants to keep working, and he talks of writing one and maybe two more books.

''I'd rather do that than be on a boat gazing out on the ocean,'' he says.

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