Welcome back, Joe Investor.

Signs abound that individuals are slowly but surely getting back into the market . In April, stock funds had inflows of $16.1 billion, according to fund trade group ICI. More recent flow estimates have been bullish, too. The cash avalanche has been a boon to giant fund families such as Vanguard, T. Rowe Price, Janus and Fidelity, which earlier this week removed the upfront sales fee on five of its funds in a bid to attract some of that new money.

As the big firms beat the marketing drums to tout their best offerings, this week's Five Winning Funds highlights some great, unsung funds from lesser-known shops. These offerings may not boast ads with handsome retirees smiling at you from glossy financial magazines, but they do boast stellar long-term returns that have made smiling retirees out of investors. (Past performance doesn't guarantee ad model-worthy good looks, alas.)

"There are so many great funds from shops that just haven't been recognized," said Brian Portnoy, a fund analyst for Morningstar who for a few years penned the worthy "Hidden Gems" column for the fund-research firm. "While the big firms have been bringing in a lot of new money, that's not an indication of where the talents are, exclusively."

Digging for solid funds from well-known companies is pretty easy. Digging for undiscovered winners requires a little extra effort -- and this week's column solicited some outside suggestions from Portnoy, MaxFunds.com co-founder and TheStreet.com guest columnist Jonas Max Ferris and FundAlarm.com founder Roy Weitz. These savvy fund folks confirmed my opinion on a few funds and also offered a few that were news to me.

Before we get to the list, there are a few points worth mentioning about unheralded funds. First off, if you find a little-known fund that looks intriguing, look closer. Check the fund family's Web site: It's likely to be a small shop, but does it have a steady team of dependable managers and analysts? One of the comforts of investing in an Eaton Vance, Fidelity or T. Rowe Price fund is the deep bench of analysts behind every offering. When investing in smaller fund firms, make sure the management team has tenure, some decent backup from analysts and a stellar long-term record. If you can't find the information, call the firms and ask.

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