From medicine to mutuals

Doctor: Despite 13 years of medical training, Kris H. Jenner discovered his true love was the stock market.

June 04, 2000|By Bill Atkinson | Bill Atkinson,SUN STAFF

Dr. Kris H. Jenner was so exhausted that squeezing his 6-foot-5-inch frame onto a small bed in a converted closet didn't even bother him. Sleep came fast and deep.

Suddenly, he sprang up. After agonizing for months, finally, in February 1997, he had made up his mind: Jenner would trade in his scrubs and stethoscope for a pin-stripped suit and Hewlett-Packard 12C calculator.

He was going to become a money manager.

The decision stunned friends and colleagues alike. After all, it meant sacrificing 13 years of medical and scientific training at some of the most prestigious universities - Oxford University in England, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School - and abandoning a promising career as a general surgeon.

"This was completely about me getting up in the morning and having a bounce in my step," said Jenner, 38. "I realized over time, I had tremendous passion for this."

Jenner now runs the T. Rowe Price Health Sciences Fund, which he took over in January, after a stint as a biotechnology and pharmaceutical analyst at the firm. He is already demonstrating a deft touch as a stock picker.

He urged fund managers to buy Genentech Inc. last year at $45 a share. They did, and its shares have more than doubled to about $107.

He picked up Waters Corp. for his fund when it traded at $55 a share. It has since shot up to about $94. And he snared MedImmune Inc. at around $50, which has since more than tripled to about $155.

But the fund, which has $487 million in assets under management, still has a ways to go before it becomes a top performer. After returning 22.4 percent in 1998, it slipped last year with an 8 percent return. It is up 6.65 percent in the first five months of the year after many high-flying biotechnology stocks plunged.

Jenner "is ... kind of new," said Valerie Putchaven, an analyst at Morningstar Inc., a Chicago-based mutual fund tracking firm. "But he seems like he knows what is going on in the industry."

Senior executives at T. Rowe Price Associates Inc., the Baltimore-based mutual fund company, are impressed with what they have seen so far.

"What has surprised me is the speed at which he has grown as an investor," said John H. Laporte, manager of the T. Rowe Price New Horizons Fund, and a company director. "He has accomplished more analytically and moved into a portfolio manager role faster than almost anybody I know. It is very impressive."

But not everyone was impressed by Jenner's decision to leave medicine. Some people became crazy; others just thought he had gone crazy.

Shortly after he made his decision to quit medicine, Jenner flew to Baltimore from Boston to break the news to Dr. Keith Lillemoe, professor and vice chairman of the department of surgery at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions.

Lillemoe helped recruit Jenner to Johns Hopkins, and had high hopes for the young man.

"I had no idea why he was coming in," Lillemoe recalled. "He just walked in the door and told me. It wasn't something he wanted to do over the phone."

"I reacted like anybody," Lillemoe added. "I got mad, and then I tried to persuade him and then I tried to challenge him, and then I said, `Do what you have got to do.' It was hard on both of us. In a way, he felt that he was letting me down."

Lillemoe always believed Jenner would have been an "outstanding" surgeon. "I think he would have been a leader. I think he would have been a great role model. It was a big loss to surgery," he said.

Jenner's decision was all the more perplexing because everyone knew he had dreamed for years of becoming a doctor.

It began when he was 6 years old and growing up in Belleville, Ill., a town of about 40,000 outside St. Louis, that's when Jenner contracted bacterial meningitis.

He was taken by how Dr. Polly Teagle, a local family physician, cared and comforted him. And there was something about the power to heal. Dr. Teagle made a lasting impression on the boy.

"I wanted to be involved in helping people at the most critical time of their life," Jenner said.

In high school, Jenner excelled in sports and he contemplated becoming a professional athlete. It was no idle fantasy. Jenner was a star.

During his senior year in high school, Jenner was offered a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Kentucky. But after looking at the intense schedule with so many games on the road, he had second thoughts because the sport would cut into his study time.

Instead, he accepted a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Illinois. But he suffered a knee injury his freshman year.

"It changed my entire focus," Jenner said. "My attention really became focused on my class work. I really lost my desire to come back and be a professional athlete. It just seemed to me that I was more excited about my school work."

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