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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The experience of Calamos Asset Management offers a lesson in the advantages and drawbacks of going public. In 2004, the company floated an initial public offering to attract the capital it needed for expansion. But while he wanted to tap new investors, John Calamos didn't want to hand over the fate of the company, which he started in 1977, to a fickle stock market. And so Calamos released only a small percentage of the firm's total shares to the public. Because of that arrangement, John Calamos and his kin own about 77 percent of Calamos Asset Management's shares and control around 97 percent of the voting stock.

Despite the limited float, the Calamos IPO was a rousing success, raising $414 million and drawing an initial chorus of cheers from investment analysts. The stock began trading on the NASDAQ at $18 per share but within weeks hit the $25 range. As expected, Calamos used the proceeds to start new mutual funds, expand staff and research capabilities, and help pay for construction of a gleaming, state-of-the-art headquarters in Naperville, designed by the noted architect Dirk Lohan. By the end of 2006, Calamos Asset Management had nearly 23 million shares outstanding and a market capitalization of about $2.7 billion.

Even though John Calamos and his family prefer not to tout their wealth, the IPO has helped the outside world place an estimated value on their closely held shares. Most of the family's $2-billion net worth-which ranks them 160th on the Forbes 400-is attributed to their ownership of company stock, notes Jeffrey Ptak, an equity analyst who follows the Calamos company for the locally based Morningstar.

"Going public has made the Calamos family richer than the god of avarice," says John Bogle, a mutual fund watchdog and founder of the Vanguard Group, a mutual fund company. (Bogle has been outspoken in arguing that there's an inherent conflict of interest when a mutual fund company goes public and has to answer both to Wall Street and to investors in the funds.)

The flip side of all the money is greater scrutiny. The Corporate Library, a shareholder activist group based in Maine, argues that Calamos Asset Management should undertake some reforms, especially when it comes to CEO pay. In a March 2007 report, the group describes the compensation package for John Calamos as excessive and a "very high concern" for investors. Included in the $6.6 million the CEO made last year was a $4.6-million bonus, according to The Corporate Library. In 2005, Calamos took home $7.6 million in salary and bonus, according to company filings reviewed by The Corporate Library. The activist group claims that Calamos's pay is "among the very highest" for a company of the size of Calamos Asset Management and that it exceeds the median of its peer group by "more than 20 percent."

"Compensation at financial service companies tends to be higher, but still this is very high," says Ric Marshall, chief analyst for The Corporate Library.

The Corporate Library report also raises a warning flag about some "related party transactions" engaged in by the company. For example, the report says that the company entered into an agreement in 2005 to pay $777,000 "to lease an airplane from Dragon Leasing Inc. for business travel." Dragon Leasing is solely owned by John Calamos. In addition, a unit of Calamos Asset Management is paying approximately $250,000 a month on a 20-year lease to rent its corporate headquarters from a real-estate unit controlled by the Calamos family, according to The Corporate Library. The office building opened in 2005.

"When you're the controlling shareholder and in management, the number of ways to divert money into your own pocket is really very great," says Marshall, who adds that such insider transactions can set off alarm bells with institutional shareholders.

"If Calamos didn't want the spotlight, then the company shouldn't have gone public," says Bogle.

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Hefty CEO pay packages and even some insider deals would be easier for shareholders to stomach if Calamos Asset Management were living up to its self-definition as a growth company. But in the first quarter of 2007, the company's net income was $7.5 million, down 16 percent from the year before. During that same period, revenue dipped 4 percent to $115.7 million. In addition, assets under management that quarter dropped to $42.6 billion, compared with $47.6 billion the year before. As of June, the stock was down 7 percent to the $26-per-share range for the year.

The culprit appears to be the slowing Calamos Growth Fund, the flagship that accounts for 36 percent of the company's managed asset base. Started in 1990, the fund is a mix of stocks in large and midsize domestic firms. During its heyday, Calamos Growth Fund lived up to its name by racking up eye-popping returns of 77.7 percent in 1999 and 42.3 percent in 2003. But as the fund's assets have grown from $6.7 billion in 2004 to this year's $15.4 billion, its returns have tapered off, and last year it posted a meager 1.5 percent gain.

As of mid-June, the fund was up 12 percent for the year, but even at that clip it was lagging behind competing funds in a robust stock market, points out Ptak, the Morningstar analyst.

Goldman Sachs is especially down on the fund. In recommending that clients sell their Calamos shares, Goldman predicts the Calamos Growth Fund will "be a drag" on the balance sheet for a while.

"This is an inflection point for them," says Ptak.

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During an interview at his company's new headquarters-a striking, glass-walled mid-rise-John Calamos insists he sees no need to change the company's fundamental approach, and he doesn't apologize for its recent performance. He argues that hard work, family values, and life experiences have steeled him to overcome the current troubles and withstand criticism. At 5 feet 11 inches tall with a trim build and sporting a close-cropped beard tinged with gray, he backs his words with a brisk and direct manner.

He says his payout was determined by the board of directors' compensation committee and he disagrees with assertions that he is paid above the going rate for heads of companies the size of Calamos Asset Management. "On our compensation, we do peermetrics. There's no way we're not in line with those comps." (Calamos Asset Management has a six-person board with four outside directors.)

Calamos also dismisses investor wariness about insider deals. He notes that the aircraft leasing and real estate ventures were outlined in the company's IPO, available for examination by any and all investors. "We went to great pains so all those things were done in a transparent way," Calamos says. He adds that his company was being up-front about its business transactions long before Congress added disclosure requirements for public companies in the aftermath of the Enron debacle.

At the suggestion that his company is losing a step and is no longer on a growth track, Calamos gets a little frosty. Although he concedes that the Calamos Growth Fund had a tough year in 2006, he points out that the fund's stock portfolio is coming back this year.

Meanwhile, he says, Calamos Asset Management is looking to build up its business base by expanding into new investment areas-among them, a hedge fund and more international investments. "We own 77 percent of the company; do we care what happens? You bet," he says. "Do we think we're a growth company? You bet."

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Calamos says his fascination with finance goes back to his teenage years, when he discovered a cache of old stock certificates in the family's grocery stockroom. He looked into their value and found they were worthless. "I thought I was going to discover three shares of IBM," he says.

Nevertheless, his appetite grew for researching investments. While in college a few years later, Calamos talked his mother into staking him $5,000 to set up a portfolio of five stocks-each issue backed by a $1,000 investment. "I picked four good ones, including Texas Instruments," Calamos recalls. "I also took one piece of advice [about a stock] from a cousin and that went to zero." (His Texas Instruments buy tripled in value while the cousin's choice of Muntz TV went bust in 1959.)

In the early 1960s, Calamos did undergraduate work in economics at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he also took air force ROTC training. He eventually got an MBA from IIT, paying for his education with income from owning and operating a string of launderettes. In 1965, already married and a father, Calamos entered the air force and soon after began pilot training. He had five years of active duty, with a tour in Vietnam between 1968 and 1969. The military experience changed his life, he says. "Getting my wings gave me a lot of confidence. Being a combat pilot and getting through a war is no pleasant experience. But you make life-and-death decisions that you have to live by the rest of your life. Those were confidence builders and gave me a sense that I could do what I choose."

Throughout his air force years, Calamos had continued to study books on finance and investing strategies. In 1977, he flexed his confidence and started his own company, taking out a $60,000 second mortgage on his house to help bankroll the endeavor. At the time, his focal point was marketing to institutional investors a financial instrument-obscure at the time-known as convertible bonds (which are corporate bonds that can be converted to company stock). One of his early employees was his older brother, Angelo, who retired from the company last year.

The firm began hitting its stride over the next decade. In 1985, it offered its first mutual fund to the public-one of nearly a dozen funds to come. The assets under management skyrocketed, zooming from around $9 billion in 2001 to today's estimated $43 billion. Though the company now employs around 400 people, family still plays a major role in running things: his son John Jr., 43, is a senior-level executive and stock analyst, while his nephew Nick Calamos, 45, is senior executive vice president and head of investments.

John Calamos remains the face of the company, seen on CNBC, Bloomberg Television, and other broadcast outlets and quoted in the financial press. Often he is interviewed via satellite from an in-house studio located within the high-tech Calamos headquarters.

Around Naperville, he's known as a savvy businessman who is a driving force behind the construction of CityGate Centre, an office-retail-hotel complex on Naperville's north side, just across from Calamos company headquarters. (A company-related real-estate group is building the project.) "You see him out at dinner and he's very quiet and unassuming," says longtime Naperville mayor A. George Pradel. "But he's a brain." (Indeed, Calamos was smart enough to get Naperville to agree to rebate up to $7.5 million in taxes that his new CityGate Centre development is expected to generate over the next 20 years.)

A resident of Aurora, John Calamos still loves to go up in the wild blue yonder. He owns three small planes, including a Marchetti SF.260 and a T-6 that he pilots for recreation, and a Citation X business jet that he does not fly, according to the company. On the ground, he has been a supporter of the area's Greek community, contributing $2 million toward construction of the new Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center in Greektown.

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For all the criticism that has been leveled at Calamos and his company in the last year or so, he insists he still enjoys what he does-enough so that he scoffs at the occasional speculation that Calamos could be acquired by a major financial services company. "I have a report in my desk telling me I'd be out of business because of consolidation. It's dated 1992," Calamos says, vowing to stay independent. "I may be too old to work for anyone else."

And, after all, running a mutual fund company-even one going through a tough transition-sure beats stocking grocery shelves.

Editor's note: Contributing editor Robert Reed is an investor in the Calamos Growth Fund, which he holds in a 401(k) investment portfolio.