American Express ( AXP)swiped a trio of stock pickers from fund titan Fidelity, giving its spotty fund lineup a booster shot and bucking the industry's firing trend.

AmEx, which offers its own family of funds under the AXP label, announced on Tuesday that it has hired Douglas Chase, Robert Ewing and Nick Thakore. The three managers formerly ran the Boston fund behemoth's ( FEXPX) Export & Multinational , ( FBALX) Balanced , and ( FFIDX) Fidelity funds, respectively. The trio, who managed more than $20 billion at Fidelity, will start a Boston office and manage $12 billion for their new bosses. The move comes amid a spate of manager firings at other firms and is part of AmEx's continuing effort to bolster its funds, most of which have trailed their average peer in recent years. Fidelity managers are often a hot commodity given the firm's pedigree.

"I think it probably is a sign that AmEx is pretty serious about revamping and improving its funds unit," says Scott Cooley, a senior fund analyst with Chicago research house Morningstar. "People are always out to hire away people from Fidelity because they have a pretty rigorous hiring and training regimen. I can remember someone at Fidelity saying Doug Chase was one of the best young managers they had."

All three of the swiped managers had done well in their first year or two running a diversified fund. Prior to that, each had run a few sector funds -- the Boston fund shop's usual training ground. Fidelity's Web site doesn't list their replacements yet.

Chase will manage the equity portion of two balanced portfolios, the ( INMUX) AXP Mutual fund and the VP Managed fund, an account offered in variable annuities. The AXP Mutual fund has trailed the S&P 500 and more than 90% of its peers over the past one, three, five and 10 years. In running Fidelity's Export & Multinational fund since February 2000, Chase topped more than 95% of his large-cap growth-fund peers and the S&P 500 in each of the past two calendar years. Prior to that, he'd run three different sector funds since 1994.

Thakore will run the ( INIDX) AXP Growth fund and its clone for variably annuity investors, VP Growth. The former has trailed its average peer and the S&P 500 over the past one, three, five and 10 years. Thakore started running the Fidelity fund halfway through 2000 and beat his average peer and the index last year. Prior to that he ran various sector funds since 1996.

Ewing will run the new AXP Large Cap Equity fund, slated to launch in the second quarter, and the VP Capital Resources fund for variable annuity investors. He had run the Fidelity Balanced fund since February 2000, beating the S&P 500 and his average peer in each of the past two years. Prior to that he ran three sector funds during the previous four years.

Fidelity is used to losing one or a few managers to various hedge funds, but hasn't seen this type of triple defection to another fund company in quite a while. "I think American Express successfully raided Fidelity and that hasn't happened in about a decade," says Jim Lowell, editor of the independent newsletter FidelityInvestor.com.

The hirings are AmEx's latest move to strengthen their fund offerings, most of which trail their average competitor over the past one, three, five and 10 years. Over the past eight months, the firm has launched funds subadvised funds run by venerable managers like Marty Whitman and Mario Gabelli, with the AXP Partners brand.

"I'd be pretty encouraged," said Morningstar's Cooley.
Ian McDonald writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send your feedback to imcdonald@thestreet.com, but he cannot give specific financial advice.

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