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The Billionaire Next Door

When John Calamos took his mutual-fund company public in 2004, not only did he join the ranks of the world’s richest people; he also invited the kind of scrutiny and criticism he had never faced as a private businessman

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Naperville businessman John Calamos and his family have a net worth of about $2 billion, earning them a spot on the latest Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans and placing them in the well-heeled company of various, more familiar local names, such as Crown, Pritzker, Zell, and Oprah. Calamos made his fortune running Calamos Asset Management, a mutual-fund company that oversees nearly $43 billion in assets.

Calamos, 66, the CEO and chairman, recalls with amusement that his late father, a Greek immigrant who owned a small food store in the Austin neighborhood for 30 years, had other ambitions for his youngest son. “After I had some success,” Calamos recalls, “he once said to me: ‘If you had stayed in the grocery business, we’d be bigger than Dominick’s.’”

These days, you couldn’t blame him if he occasionally wished he had followed that fatherly advice. Since taking his quiet, family-owned enterprise public three years ago, Calamos has flown onto the radar of unhappy activist investors and Wall Street analysts, who are pushing for greater management accountability and higher returns. They’re upset with the roughly $6.6-million pay package John Calamos earned for 2006, a year when the company’s stock price fell 13.5 percent, while the Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 13.6 percent. One shareholder activist group has also warned about instances of seeming self-dealing, in which the company made hefty payments to Calamos-related real estate and aviation ventures.

Meanwhile, the reputation of Calamos Asset Management as a “growth company” has been challenged by Goldman, Sachs & Co., the influential New York financial firm. Goldman recommended that its clients sell Calamos stock, citing bleak potential for the Calamos Growth Fund, the company’s primary investment vehicle.

John Calamos-who served as a fighter pilot in Vietnam-is firing right back at critics of his company, conceding it has “underperformed” but adding that that’s no cause for panic or loss of confidence in his firm’s stock-picking and investment methods. “You’re not the top-tier manager every quarter, every year,” Calamos says. “If that were the case, I’d have all the money in the world.”

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