Learning to Listen

updated 03/20/1995 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/20/1995 01:00AM

THEY COME TOGETHER THE FIRST Thursday of every month, 15 neatly coiffed matrons in the basement of the Fourth Street Evangelical Lutheran Church in Beardstown, Ill. A church social? Not likely when the conversation is about book values and balance sheets.

Meet the members of the Beardstown Ladies investment club, the heartland numbers-crunchers who are wowing Wall Street with their market savvy. The Beardstown Ladies' portfolio of 25 stocks has earned an average annual return of 23 percent during the past decade, outpacing the stock picks of many professional money managers.

No wonder then that the women's just-published strategy for beating the market, The Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide, has become an instant best-seller or that the market for their video, Cookin' Up Profits on Wall Street, is bullish. What's their secret? "We're ordinary women who do our homework," says Shirley Gross, 77, a retired medical technologist. It all started back in '83, when former bank customer-service rep Betty Sinnock, 63, was looking for a hobby to occupy her elderly aunt. "I thought the only meaning of portfolio was briefcase. I just wanted to learn," says Sinnock, who organized the Beardstown Business and Professional Women's Investment Club. Each of the 16 charter members (one has since died) put up an initial $100; each adds $25 to the kitty every month, and dividends are reinvested.

Today the club's portfolio is worth $95,000. "We invest with our hearts, our eyes and our stomachs," says real estate agent Buffy Tillitt-Pratt, 42, which explains the women's buy-and-hold strategy toward companies like McDonald's, Quaker Oats, Hershey's and Wal-Mart. "They make a lot of jokes, but they're very serious investors," says Ken Janke, CEO of the National Association of Investors Corp. "They're not trying to time the market, just trying to find good management, stocks and prices."

They haven't gotten rich yet, but getting famous has paid some unexpected dividends. Elsie Scheer, 76, and Ruth Huston, 75, flew for the first time in their lives to appear on Donahue recently, and after an interview on Today, Maxine Thomas, 74, got a marriage proposal in the mail. Hardly surprising, considering that the ladies' investment guide is loaded with down-home recipes, including one any prospective suitor would love: Shirley's Stock Market Muffins (Guaranteed to Rise).

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