James E. Stowers Jr., founder of American Century and the Stowers Institute, dies

03/18/2014 1:53 PM

03/24/2014 12:21 PM

James E. Stowers Jr., the Kansas City entrepreneur and philanthropist whose business success improved the finances of millions and whose medical legacy will aid generations, died Monday. He was 90.

Stowers founded American Century Investments in his kitchen in 1958 and with his wife, Virginia, gave the fortune it brought to build the Stowers Institute for Medical Research three decades later on the grounds of the former Menorah Medical Center.

“To call Jim Stowers a visionary would be an understatement,” said Richard W. Brown, chairman of the board of both American Century and the Stowers Institute. “For Jim, creating new knowledge was the most powerful contribution he could offer mankind.”

Stowers died at his Kansas City home from natural causes following a period of declining health. Stowers had turned control of the Stowers Institute and American Century over to Brown after an accident in 2010 left him temporarily impaired.

He had recovered and returned to work until last summer, American Century spokesman Chris Doyle said. The Stowers Institute held a celebration of Stowers’ 90th birthday in January.

“He was a loved man, and he will be so missed,” said Debra Ellies, a former Stowers Institute scientist who founded OsteoGeneX Inc. in Kansas City, Kan. “He had a huge impact on me as a scientist and a business person.”

Ellies said she followed advice that Stowers offered over lunch. It was his often repeated mantra to surround yourself with the best people and to expect the best from the people around you.

Stowers’ own legacy grew from his ability to listen to the advice but make his own decisions.

For example, he and Virginia originally saw the Stowers Institute as a focal point for cancer research. He had survived prostate cancer, and she survived breast cancer.

But the couple heeded advice that better results would come from basic research, said Wayne Carter, chief executive of the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute Inc.

“They’re making basic science discoveries that have an impact in cancer but also many other diseases,” Carter said.

Stowers, however, ignored other voices that told him to abandon Kansas City.

“There was a lot of skepticism that what he was trying to create would ever be of value in Kansas City,” Carter said. “There were a lot of people that tried to convince him to put it in Boston or San Diego or San Francisco.”

Impact on medical research

Stowers was both a determined and humble man, purposely avoiding the public eye.

His soft-speaking voice rarely was heard on civic issues, but he also championed the fight to protect stem-cell research in Missouri.

The 2006 battle benefited from Stowers’ funding for The Coalition for Lifesaving Cures that supported a constitutional amendment ensuring that federally permitted stem-cell research could happen in Missouri.

Such research was fundamental at the Stowers Institute that Jim and Virginia Stowers pledged their fortune to create in 1994.

A few years later, having given more than $325 million at the time, the couple ranked seventh in the American Benefactor magazine’s list of the most generous Americans. It counted only money that had been given away, not merely pledged or stuffed in a foundation run by the donor.

Stowers was listed ahead of Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and communications magnate Ted Turner.

“So what?” was his reaction at the time. “We’re not doing what we’re trying to do to be ballyhooed and to impress the world.”

But the world took notice.

The Stowers Institute silenced doubters by attracting top scientists from around the world. One draw was its ample funding that meant researchers didn’t have to spend half their time scrounging up the money to fund their work.

And the institute’s success became a catalyst for biosciences in the Kansas City region.

“I don’t think there’s anybody in Kansas City who has had a more profound effect on the life sciences and really allowed this whole region to understand how critically important it was for the economy,” said Roy Jensen, physician, cancer researcher and director of the University of Kansas Cancer Center in Kansas City, Kan.

Jensen cited Stowers’ influence on regional health initiatives generally and on the university’s National Cancer Institute designation specifically.

The Stowers Institute’s “high caliber” scientists and its state-of-the-art resources became a stimulant for others’ work in the region, said Elias Michaelis, director of the Higuchi Biosciences Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Michaelis said the institute’s interaction with universities has included giving graduate and post-doctoral researchers access to its training programs and resources.

“They have brought them right into their own labs and trained them in the highest levels of scientific inquiry,” Michaelis said.

The Stowers Institute consists of more than 550 researchers and support personnel. It runs more than 20 independent research programs and more than a dozen technology development and core facilities.

“The institute has been incredibly fortunate to benefit from the unique combination of Jim and Virginia Stowers’ vision, generosity and determination,” said Dave Chao, president and chief executive of the institute.

Business success

In business, Stowers was as successful and determined as he was in building the Stowers Institute. But he started with a lot less.

His two original Twentieth Century Mutual Funds began with about $100,000 from two dozen investors and his vision that his success lay in helping small investors succeed.

And he did just that by devising one of the most aggressive investment styles on Wall Street. His mutual funds would soar and plunge, yet leave patient investors well ahead of others.

Twentieth Century enjoyed explosive growth in the 1980s.

“It was a tremendously fun time, working with Jim and a team of highly skilled executives,” said Bill Lyons, who joined the Kansas City-based fund family in 1987 and left as its chief executive 20 years later.

Lyons said Stowers kept his fund company, renamed American Century, focused on the long term.

Stowers held strong beliefs about everything from customer services to investment choices but could be swayed by vigorous and convincing debate.

“The good thing is he listened,” Lyons said. “And when he came around, he came all the way around. He’d changed his mind.”

American Century’s success made Stowers richer than Henry Bloch, the better known co-founder of H&R Block, according to rankings by Forbes magazine of the 400 richest Americans in the 1990s.

“Jim was one of Kansas City’s legendary entrepreneurs,” said Jim Heeter, president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

At the fund company, Stowers had a homespun image burnished by the many peanut butter sandwiches he lunched on in his multimillion-dollar company’s cafeteria. He could be heartfelt, routinely tearing up as he addressed employee gatherings.

His first career choice had been in medicine, being the son and grandson of doctors. Stowers earned a medical degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia but quickly abandoned his medical foray shortly after meeting a nurse named Virginia Ann Glascock, whom he married in 1954.

Instead, Stowers began to sell mutual funds at Waddell & Reed before launching his own fund company.

Stowers also developed his own computer-aided stock picking system, writing part of the program while sitting in a hotel bathtub in Montreal, where he and Virginia had attended a conference.

“It was in the middle of the night and I did not want to wake Virginia up,” Stowers wrote in his autobiography, “The Best Is Yet to Be.” “Where could I go? I finally went into the bathroom, shut the door and sat in the bathtub programming the darn thing.”

Stowers is survived by his wife, Virginia; and three adult children and their families: Kathleen Stowers-Potter, her husband, Jim Potter, and their children Lauren, Ryan and his wife, Kara, and Alex; James Stowers III and his wife, Michele, and their children Layne and James IV; and Linda Stowers and her son Alex.

He is also survived by his brother Richard W. Stowers Sr., Richard’s wife, Dorothy, and their children Susie, Richard Jr. and Frank.

James E. Stowers Jr. was preceded in death by a daughter, Pamela, in 2010.

A celebration of life will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday at the Stowers Institute, 1000 E. 50th St.

American Century Investments

• Founded in 1958 as Twentieth Century Mutual Funds by James E. Stowers Jr., with two funds and about $100,000 in seed money from two dozen investors.
• Renamed American Century Investments in 2000 and now lists more than 85 funds. Ranked 12th among largest mutual fund companies in 2013. It has $141 billion in assets under management, about half of that in its mutual funds.
• 1,300 employees, with headquarters at 4500 Main St. in Kansas City and other offices in London, Hong Kong, New York and Mountain View, Calif.

Stowers Institute for Medical Research

• Founded in 1994 by James E. Stowers Jr. and his wife, Virginia Stowers, who endowed the institute with gifts totaling about $2 billion.
• Focuses on basic biomedical research in genetic model organisms.
• Located on the former campus of Menorah Medical Center.
• First laboratories formally opened in November 2000.
• In 2009, opened a storage and support facility in south Kansas City.
• The institute houses more than 20 independent research programs and a dozen technology development programs and core facilities.
• More than 550 researchers and support personnel.
• $1 billion spent so far on research.

Sources: American Century and Stowers Institute

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