The Top Picks From 50 Great Investors
By Yuval Rosenberg, David Rynecki, and David Stires Additional reporting by Richard Tomlinson REPORTER ASSOCIATE Doris Burke

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Their track records speak for themselves. They are the trapeze artists, the sixth-sensers, the odds beaters. Take, for starters, fund manager Bill Miller, who has outpaced the broader market for a stunning 12 straight years and counting. Or Jim Gipson, whose fund has averaged a 16% annual return over the past decade. Or George Mairs, an ever modest Minnesotan who, by the way, has returned 12% annually to his fund's shareholders since ... 1958! For the 2004 Guide, we went all-out, seeking the best investors in the business--50 of them, in fact. Some, like Miller, are already legendary in name. Others, like Mairs, are less well-known to the investing public. All, however, are worth listening to. We asked each of them--in some cases, cajoled them--for his or her single best pick for 2004. Here is their collective wisdom.

Rick Aster Meridian Growth PICK > Silicon Valley Bancshares

It's a rare growth manager who fared well during the downturn. Rick Aster is one of the few. By refusing to load his Meridian Growth fund with tech and dot-com stocks at inflated prices, Aster managed to beat the S&P 500 by nearly 20% a year over the past three years, generating annualized returns of 14%. That puts Meridian Growth in the top 1% of its peers. And this year Aster has kept right on rolling, steering the fund to a gain of almost 50%. One of the names giving the portfolio that jolt is tech banking firm Silicon Valley Bancshares (SIVB, $36). Shares have doubled this year, but Aster believes they will climb further as earnings continue to rebound. "They kept their loan portfolio in good shape," he says, "and you just have to feel that they are going to benefit substantially as the economy picks up and tech comes back."

Brian Berghuis T. Rowe Price Mid-Cap Growth PICK > Oshkosh Truck

In the past decade at the helm of the top-performing fund at T. Rowe Price, Brian Berghuis has averaged a return of nearly 14% annually. He likes to focus on companies flying below the radar because he finds he can get easier access to management. That, in turn, allows him to gain a better understanding of the catalysts that drive the company. Right now Berghuis is excited about Oshkosh Truck (OSK, $49). The Wisconsin company makes specialty trucks used by the military, garbage haulers, and cement layers. It also has a 29% share of the U.S. fire truck market. And sales are sizzling: Profits have grown 30% annually over the past five years.

By gosh, Oshkosh THE COMPANY MAKES ...



Susan Byrne Westwood Holdings Group PICK > Rayonier

Byrne is a growth investor with a knack for sniffing out bargains. Her Gabelli Westwood Equity fund is up more than 11% on average over the past ten years, while her private accounts have nimbly maneuvered through the market. The founder and CEO of Westwood Holdings Group likes to find companies that let her play off ongoing themes in the economy. The red-hot economic rebound, for example, has persuaded her to move money into Rayonier (RYN, $37), a forestry company with more than two million acres of timberland that recently converted itself into a real estate investment trust, or REIT. Shares of the company, which must now pay out 90% or more of its profits to investors, are expected to yield a rich 6.4% in 2004. But the real opportunity for appreciation, says Byrne, is that Rayonier's financial results--and its share price--should ramp up as demand for commodities increases.

Chris Davis Davis Financial PICK > Berkshire Hathaway B Shares

Davis is just 39 years old, yet he's managed one of the most successful funds in the business for more than a decade, averaging a 14% yearly return. His style is to buy and hold conservatively managed companies that consistently record above-average returns on capital. One that he says is currently a bargain is Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRKb, $2,799). Individual investors might find the $84,000-per-share pricetag for Class A shares a bit rich, but Berkshire also offers "B" shares trading at a more modest $2,800 or so. The B shares (one-thirtieth of an A share) don't come with the same voting privileges, but they give you a piece of a golden franchise that is expected to prosper from a strong economy. According to Davis, what makes Berkshire attractive is that shares are only now getting back to their 1998 highs. And since then, Berkshire has increased its intrinsic value by 60%.

David Dreman Scudder-Dreman High Return Equity PICK > Altria Group

A tale of two markets. That's David Dreman's description of stocks these days. The noted contrarian says that Nasdaq 100 highfliers have reentered bubble territory and may be poised once again for the worst of times. On the other hand the broader S&P 500 is still cheap enough for investors to expect, if not the best of times, then at least reasonable returns. And Dreman knows a little something about reasonable returns. As of the end of the third quarter, his Scudder-Dreman High Return Equity fund topped the Lipper rankings of equity-income funds with a ten-year average annual return of about 13%. So where is the 67-year-old fund manager looking for value these days? He's loaded up on shares of Altria Group (MO, $51), which now account for more than 9% of his fund's holdings. The stock has been on a tear of late, rising 24% in the past 13 weeks. But Dreman says Altria, which trades for about 11 times earnings and pays a generous 5.2% dividend, should go higher as fears about tobacco litigation diminish.

BEYOND SMOKING There's more to the Marlboro Man than meets the eye.

2002 Altria net revenues

59% Tobacco 37% Food 3% Beer 1% Financial services


Joe Frohna First American Small Cap Growth PICK > Sypris Solutions

First American's lucky shareholders have enjoyed a 28% annual return over the past five years. They can thank manager Joe Frohna's keen instincts for spotting up-and-coming companies with market capitalizations below $1 billion. Sypris Solutions (SYPR, $13) is a perfect example. The company's truck axles are being purchased by manufacturers in order to comply with new environmental standards. It is also a subcontractor to defense contractors working to modernize U.S. weapons systems.

Nicholas Gerber Ameristock PICK > Sara Lee

For Nicholas Gerber, manager of the $1.8 billion Ameristock fund, big is beautiful. The fund invests only in the largest of large caps, those with market values of at least $15 billion. Gerber looks for predictable companies with generous dividends and then holds them for years. That concentration on supersized stability has underperformed this year, but it helped Ameristock weather the bear market well--the fund returned an average 4.4% a year over the past five years, nearly 5% better than the S&P. One of Gerber's favorite companies now is Sara Lee (SLE, $21), the $18 billion parent of brands Hillshire Farm, Hanes, and Wonderbra. Investors have punished the conglomerate for its flagging earnings, as well as for management missteps like overpaying for the 2001 acquisition of bakery Earthgrains. But Gerber likes Sara Lee's healthy cash flow and thinks that its restructuring moves will pay off long term. In the meantime he's happy to buy the stock while it trades at a projected 2004 P/E of 13 and offers a dividend yielding 3.6%. Says Gerber: "We're putting our money where our mouth is right now and adding to our position."

Jim Gipson Clipper PICK > Freddie Mac

Jim Gipson routinely stuffs his fund with beaten-up names. His biggest holding, Freddie Mac (FRE, $55), is a classic example. Following revelations of widespread accounting problems, the company could be forced by federal regulators to boost its capital requirements, hurting profits. Oh, and Freddie has yet to replace embattled CEO Greg Parseghian. But Gipson says the stock, trading for just nine times next year's projected earnings, is simply too cheap to pass up. By next spring he expects the company to have a new CEO and the regulatory issues to be resolved. "As those clouds are removed, people will again focus on the basic business," says Gipson. "And the basic business is excellent."

Mason Hawkins Longleaf Partners PICK > Millea Holdings

Well before mutual fund governance became a headline issue, Mason Hawkins made a point of treating shareholders in his Longleaf Partners funds as just that--partners. And a profitable partnership it has been: Hawkins's flagship fund has produced ten-year annualized returns of more than 15%. These days, however, Hawkins and his team say they are finding few outstanding values in the U.S. One name they do like is Japanese insurance giant Millea Holdings (MLEA, $57), which trades as an ADR. The stock, which makes up nearly 6% of the Longleaf International fund, has a current P/E of 16 and sells at nearly a 50% discount to what Hawkins thinks it's worth.

Conrad Herrmann Franklin Flex Cap Growth PICK > VCA Antech

Herrmann, who has registered 15% annualized returns since 1993, likes to find battered growth stocks, often ones that are based right in his California backyard. The stock he sees with the best prospects right now belongs to a health-care company. Not just any kind of HMO or hospital operator, however: Herrmann likes VCA Antech (WOOF, $32), the country's leading veterinary-clinic manager. With revenues growing in the high double digits and limited risks of government controls compared with human health providers, VCA is gobbling up market share in a fragmented business.

ANIMAL MAGNETISM Veterinary-clinic manager VCA Antech treats an amazing number of pets.


Rick Jandrain One Group Mid-Cap Growth PICK > Express Scripts

Jandrain sticks to companies able to produce 20% annual profit growth. His fund has risen 12% a year on average for the past ten years and is up 27% in 2003 so far. An example of the kind of fast, consistent growth Jandrain likes is Express Scripts (ESRX, $64). The company manages pharmacy benefits for 16,000 health-care providers and companies. Express Scripts has grown revenues at a 30% annualized clip for three years. And it stands to do even better in 2004 if health-insurance reform becomes a hot-button political issue, as expected. Because Express Scripts helps companies save money, it is a rare beneficiary of more government oversight of health care.

Kevin Landis Firsthand Technology Value PICK > UTStarcom

Scan the holdings of Kevin Landis's Firsthand Technology Value fund and you won't find many of the most familiar tech names, the ones you might expect to see in a standard-issue tech fund. Microsoft? Not in the portfolio. Intel? Nope. Dell? Not there either. Instead Landis, the Silicon Valley fund family's chief investment officer, targets lesser-known tech stocks that he feels have higher growth potential. Those bets have helped his $826 million Technology Value fund ride the industry's swings to an 18% annual return since its inception in 1994. (That record also includes staggering losses of 44% in 2001 and 56% in 2002.) And few funds have benefited more from the recent resurgence in technology--the fund is up 83% year-to-date. One of Landis's current favorites is UTStarcom (UTSI, $37), a telecom equipment provider with extensive operations in China. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you're going to hear a lot about it in the next year," says Landis, who expects revenues to grow at a better-than-40% clip. "It's a great growth story at a fairly attractive price."

George Mairs Mairs & Power Growth PICK > Wells Fargo

At 75, George Mairs is the dean of growth managers. His Mairs & Power Growth fund, which he launched 45 years ago, has averaged a 17% return over the past ten years by investing more than half the portfolio in companies based in Mairs's home state of Minnesota. With turnover an astonishingly low 5%, Mairs has held his average stock for 20 years. One that he has no plans ever to sell is Wells Fargo (WFC, $57). Now headquartered in San Francisco, the Gopher State's former Norwest has earnings that are less volatile than other major banks because it still acts, he says, like a small-town lender that avoids risky business lines and focuses on customer service.

MISTER CONSISTENCY Fund manager George Mairs's record is unmatchable.



Stan Majcher Hotchkis & Wiley Mid-Cap Value PICK > EDS

Up 20% a year since 1998 and 47% in 2003, Majcher searches for battered and bruised companies that few investors think are worth buying. He's been piling up shares of Electronic Data Systems (EDS, $23) for the past year, even though headlines about accounting irregularities have plagued the stock. Majcher says that investors have overlooked the ability of EDS to generate cash flow, and that at nine times his estimate for normal earnings power, the stock is a steal.

Bill Miller Legg Mason Value Trust PICK > InterActive Corp.

Miller is the Joe DiMaggio of investing--having beaten the S&P 500 every year since 1991. He's averaged a 17% annual return during that streak and topped the S&P 500 by nearly seven percentage points. So when Miller says he's bullish, it's worth paying attention. The Sultan of Stock expects strong profit growth, surprisingly low inflation, and low interest rates to fuel double-digit returns for the broad market in 2004. These macro trends bode well, he says, for one of his favorite holdings, InterActive Corp. (IACI, $31), the parent of, Lending Tree, and Home Shopping Network. Miller describes Barry Diller's web-focused conglomerate as the "Berkshire Hathaway for the new economy." And at $31 a share, Miller expects InterActive to generate around $10 billion in cash over the next five years.

Ron Muhlenkamp Muhlenkamp PICK > Meritage

Ron Muhlenkamp hunts for stocks with high returns on equity and low price/earnings ratios--"above-average companies selling at discount prices," as he says. Muhlenkamp has long been a fan of homebuilders, which he argues are not as cyclical as the market believes. Among the half-dozen homebuilders in his portfolio, he singles out Meritage (MTH, $65). The company constructs single-family homes, ranging from entry level to luxury, in fast-growing states such as Arizona, Texas, and California. Meritage's return on equity is north of 20%, yet the stock sells for just nine times its projected earnings for 2004.

Bill Nygren Oakmark PICK > Washington Mutual

Bill Nygren often finds value in the intangibles. He has steered his Oakmark Select fund to a 17% average annual return over the past five years by going beyond the surface numbers. Take Washington Mutual (WM, $44), his biggest holding. Shares of the nation's largest savings and loan trade for just ten times next year's projected earnings because investors fear the company is too dependent on mortgage lending, which many believe will suffer as interest rates rise. But Nygren thinks WaMu's two decades of experience targeting retail banking customers--an asset that does not show up on its balance sheet--is helping the company remake itself into a more diversified financial-services company. As evidence, he points out that the number of checking accounts grew 11% in the third quarter. "Washington Mutual is well on its way toward becoming the leading nationwide retail bank for the middle class," he says.

Jim Oelschlager White Oak Growth PICK > Cisco Systems

When other growth-oriented money managers were running scared in 2001 and 2002, the 33-year veteran continued buying stocks and holding on no matter how choppy the waters became. The strategy paid off. He's up 50% this year and 12% annually for the past decade. Where's he putting his money now? Cisco Systems (CSCO, $23). Oelschlager says Cisco has virtually no debt, heaps of cash, and huge prospects for stealing market share in the lucrative storage and voice enterprises.

John Rogers Ariel PICK > American Greetings

John Rogers knows a thing or two about scoring. A former Princeton basketball player, Rogers last summer became the first person to beat Michael Jordan in a one-on-one game at Jordan's 35-and-older fantasy camp. (He won 3-2). And off the court, as manager of the $2.1 billion Ariel fund, Rogers has scored even more impressively. For the past ten years his small-cap fund, based in Chicago, has returned an average of 13.5% a year, 3% better than the S&P 500 and 1.5% better than the Russell 2000 Value index. This year Rogers has generated a 25% return. He's done it by investing in stocks with low price/earnings ratios and out-of-favor companies he believes are dramatically undervalued by the market--like American Greetings (AM, $21), the Cleveland cardmaker. The second-largest holding in Rogers's fund, American Greetings has gained 34% this year, but Rogers thinks the stock's run is far from over. "It's still very cheap," he says. He adds that a new generation of management has cut costs and focused on growing the business, making its 2004 P/E of 13 that much more appealing.

SMALL CAPS, GIANT RETURNS With an uncanny eye for overlooked value, Ariel fund manager John Rogers consistently beats the market.



Eli Salzmann Lord Abbett Large-Cap Research PICK > Motorola

As the director of large-cap value investing at Lord Abbett, Salzmann is known as a bottom-up fund manager who favors companies that are being slammed in the daily newspaper. His fund is up 12% a year since 1993. Motorola (MOT, $14) could be Salzmann's latest example of successful bottom fishing. Recently hammered by competitors and frozen by an ineffective CEO, Motorola has overhauled management and is already showing positive signs of recovery following the announced spinout of the company's noncore semiconductor business.

Sam Stewart Wasatch Ultra Growth PICK > Rent-A-Center

It's hard to know which Wasatch Fund is the best. Five of six that have been around since at least 1998 are up more than 20% on average in each of the past five years. The best of the bunch is Ultra Growth, which boasts a 17% annualized ten-year return. Firm founder Sam Stewart says the key is finding unknown small- and micro-cap stocks that are about to take off. A perfect example: Rent-A-Center (RCII, $32). The leader in rent-to-own household furnishings has 2,400 stores, generates operating cash flow in excess of $300 million a year, and is trading at a steep discount to the market. Says Stewart: "This is the Wal-Mart of rent-to-own."

Wally Weitz Weitz Value PICK > Liberty Media

Wally Weitz has an excessive fondness for plaid shirts, perhaps. But there's nothing checkered about his investing record. Over the past ten years the $4 billion Weitz Value fund has returned an extraordinary 15% a year on average. Like that other famous Omaha investor, Weitz has achieved this performance by looking for undervalued companies with solid management and businesses that he can thoroughly understand. As of late November, though, Weitz said he was having some difficulty unearthing new values. "At the moment I'm thinking stocks seem expensive, and I'm not finding very many interesting bargains," he said. One major holding he's still very comfortable with, however, is Liberty Media (L, $11), the cable company led by John Malone. Weitz values Liberty's media properties at about $15 a share and says he trusts management to come up with smart decisions, making the stock "a fairly easy call."

Marty Whitman Third Avenue Value PICK > The St. Joe Co.

Veteran value investor Marty Whitman has two overriding criteria for his buys: They have to be safe, and they have to be cheap. Whitman buys companies with strong balance sheets trading at a steep discount to their takeover value. Then he waits patiently for their price to catch up to the intrinsic worth he sees. That deep-value philosophy has helped Whitman's Third Avenue Value fund gain nearly 13% a year over the past ten years. One of Whitman's favorite long-horizon holdings is the St. Joe Co. (JOE, $35), a Florida real estate developer whose stock he believes has more than 25% upside. "We know we're getting a well-financed company at a sizable discount," Whitman says. That is to say, safe and cheap.