James E. Stowers, Jr.
James “Jim” Evans Stowers, Jr. an entrepreneur who applied midwestern values of preparation, integrity, and collegiality to the founding of American Century Investments and the creation of the Stowers Institute for Medical Research, died at his home in Kansas City, Mo., Monday, March 17, 2014. Stowers, a lifelong resident of Kansas City, was 90.
Regularly recognized for his visionary philanthropy by Forbes Magazine, Stowers ranked among the top ten in the magazine’s most recent listing of “most generous people on the planet” for his decision—made in 2000 in partnership with his wife Virginia—to endow the biomedical institute that bears his name with gifts totaling almost $2 billion.
This act of unparalleled generosity put Jim and Virginia Stowers among the first of the 40 signers who have taken the Giving Pledge, a public challenge from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to the nation’s wealthiest people to give away more than half of their net worth, to fulfill the requirements of the pledge, and, in fact, to go well beyond the 50-percent-to-charity stipulation.
“For Jim, creating new knowledge was the most powerful contribution he could offer mankind,” says Dick Brown, chairman of the board of directors at American Century Investment and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and co-chairman of the board of directors at BioMed Valley Discoveries. “Throughout his whole life, whether as businessman or philanthropist, he thought about making things better for other people.”
Mr. Stowers was born January 10, 1924, in Kansas City, to Dr. James Evans Stowers, a surgeon and medical doctor, and Laura Smith Stowers. After graduating in 1941 from Kemper Military School in Boonville, Mo., he began pre-medical studies at the University of Missouri in 1942, with plans to become a doctor like his father and grandfather.
Double-click video for full screen
But the entry of the United States into World War II interrupted his studies, and in 1943, Stowers left school to begin basic training with the Army Air Corps. During the next two years he trained as a fighter pilot and gunnery instructor, attaining the rank of second lieutenant.
After the war, Stowers re-enrolled in medical school at the University of Missouri in 1946. Following additional training at the University of Iowa, he earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Missouri, where he also completed a two-year degree in medicine and worked at Research Hospital in Kansas City.
It was at a Research Hospital holiday party in 1952 that he met a young nurse named Virginia Glascock. The couple fell in love and married in 1954. By then, Stowers had decided to pursue a business career in Kansas City rather than medicine, in part, Stowers joked, because Virginia refused to marry a doctor.
After briefly working in collection services for the firm of Dun and Bradstreet, Stowers went to work selling mutual funds for the Kansas City-based investment firm of Waddell & Reed. In 1956 Stowers established his own mutual fund broker/dealer firm called J.E. Stowers and Company. Soon thereafter, he started Survivor’s Benefit, a small-scale operation in which he sold term life insurance out of his house. By 1958, he decided that if the company created its own funds rather than just selling those of others, it could be more profitable. Consequently, with only about $100,000 in assets from a handful of shareholders, Stowers launched Twentieth Century Mutual Funds.
That company, renamed American Century Investments in 2000, focused on small investors and grew to be one of the top investment companies in the country. In the 1970’s Stowers took over management of the company’s funds. He even wrote his own computer program to track stocks of promising companies before the competitors could—no small feat at the time. His success was recognized when Money Magazine featured him on the cover of a 1981 issue with the headline: “One of the Best Stock Pickers in America.”
In the midst of his business triumphs, Stowers was diagnosed and treated successfully for prostate cancer in 1986, and in 1993, his wife Virginia underwent surgery for breast cancer. Their daughter Kathleen also successfully battled breast cancer a few years later.
Those experiences, along with the premature loss of his father due to heart disease, convinced Stowers that he could make a significant contribution by using his accumulated wealth to build a state-of-the-art biomedical research facility in Kansas City. In 1988, Stowers and his wife founded the health-focused Stowers Foundation, which became increasingly centered on the possibility of recruiting world-class scientists to conduct basic biology research in what Stowers himself once called “an unlikely place”.
“As a medical student, Jim saw how research leads to more effective ways of diagnosing, treating, and preventing disease,” says William B. Neaves, PhD, the founding president of the Stowers Institute. “When he founded the Stowers Institute to conduct highest-quality biomedical research, Jim uniquely combined the imagination to conceive of such a long-term vision and the capability of implementing it.”
Construction of the Stowers Institute began in 1997, and the doors of the 600,000 square-foot facility opened in November of 2000. Since then, the Institute has recruited 22 world-renowned investigators and employs a staff of more than 550 to work in what scientists have aptly called “a scientific nirvana.”
"Jim was a forward thinker who passionately believed that investing in basic research would create an engine for discovery to enhance the day-to-day lives of members of society," says Scientific Director Robb Krumlauf, PhD. "By creating a scientific institute centered on the guiding principles of team work, innovation and commitment to excellence he provided scientists with a sustainable mechanism for the pursuit of knowledge that can be used to improve lives and treat disease."
And both visitors and employees agree that the building’s design and landscape make it one of the most beautiful laboratory facilities ever constructed. However, in an interview conducted a few years after the Institute’s opening, Stowers put his no-nonsense perspective into the building’s aesthetic elements. “People ask me, ‘aren’t you proud of the building?’ and I say, ‘no—I’m proud of the people in it.’”
Stowers’ overriding goals in life—put into practice at American Century Investments and perpetuated at the Stowers Institute—were thoroughly Midwestern: to attract the very best people to do a job, treat them fairly, and encourage them to share ideas for the mutual benefit of all.
“Jim had a very clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish,” says Dave Chao, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute. “His unshakeable values and spirit of purpose permeate the Institute and are the foundation for our current and future success.”
But Stowers’ reputation for collegiality did not prevent him from enforcing extremely rigorous standards in hiring and retaining cutting-edge investigators. Once hired, principal investigators at the Institute do not earn tenure, but are reviewed periodically based on their answer to a single, very Jim Stowers-like question: what have you done in your time at the Institute to change the state of your field?
Stowers’ toughness was also manifested in 2005, when he announced that he and Virginia were considering moving their assets out of Missouri and supporting research at Harvard because of fears that the Missouri legislature would ban stem cell research. In 2006, Missouri voters narrowly passed the Missouri Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative, allowing research to move forward in his home state.
Stowers himself wrote several books, often in collaboration with his longtime friend Jack Jonathan. Among them were, Yes, You Can Achieve Financial Independence, published in 2000, and the autobiographical The Best is Yet to Be, published in 2007.
Stowers’ contributions to business and to his community were recognized by many awards in his lifetime. Among them were The Lifetime Achievement award from the Expect Miracles Foundation in 2010; the Entrepreneur of The Year National Award from Ernst and Young in 2005; an Honorary Doctorate of Science from Washington University in 2005; an Honorary Doctor of Medicine from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine in 2001; the Kansas City-based Midwest Research Institute Trustee Citation in 2002; and the Greater Kansas City Business Hall of Fame award in 2003.
Together with his wife Virginia, Stowers received the Research! America’s Gordon and Llura Gund Leadership Award for commitment to biomedical research in 2009; the Lance C. Wittmeyer Award in 2003 from the Touched by Cancer Foundation; the Chancellor’s Medal from the University of Missouri-Kansas City; the Kansas Citians of the Year award in 2005 from the Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; the “Others Award” for community service from the Salvation Army in 1999 and the Yates Medallion awarded by William Jewell College in 2007.
Stowers is survived by his wife, Virginia, 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. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Pamela, in 2010. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Stowers Institute for Medical Research (http://www.stowers.org/support/hope-shares).