Choosing any new mutual fund is risky, especially when you select one without proven leadership. Fortunately, a handful of rookie funds are being piloted by polished managers with impressive track records.

These no-load babies--Kobrick Emerging Growth, Artisan MidCap, and Marsico Focus and Marsico Growth & Income--are flush with cash from new investors, as well as from the fund families that launched them. Moreover, since the portfolios haven't been around for very long, they aren't weighed down by played-out investments. So, if you can live with the uncertainty of investing in a mutual fund without at least a three-year performance record, you might take a look at the fresh portfolios presented here.

The youngest of the group, Kobrick Emerging Growth (888 523-8631), is off to a running start. Launched at the beginning of 1998, the fund has risen 27% through Feb. 19. During the same period, the Standard & Poor's 600 SmallCap Index fell 15.8%. Although Kobrick's performance has been flat for the year to date, the benchmark S&P 600 is down nearly 10%.

The fund is co-managed by Kobrick-Cendant principal Fred Kobrick, a onetime star manager at the top-notch State Street Research and Management Emerging Growth Fund, and his protege, Michael Carmen. Kobrick is known for his hands-on approach and intense in-person grilling of executives in the companies he plows cash into. "Kobrick is an upper-echelon quality investor who is no-nonsense, focused, and hardworking," says financial adviser Peter Culman, president of Culman & Co, an investment advisory and financial planning firm based in Lexington, Mass.

Kobrick Emerging Growth has $38 million in assets under management and contains 50 issues. As its name implies, the fund seeks out early-stage companies, most of which are in technology, retail, and services. That means you'll have to tolerate a fair amount of volatility. The fund's many technology issues, including Lycos, Yahoo!, and CMG, have been bouncing around since the beginning of the year.

If you'd rather toil in the medium-cap arena, Artisan MidCap (800 454-1770) has left its peers in the dust since its launch on June 27, 1997. From its inception through Feb. 19, Artisan has soared 73.2%, compared with 33.6% for the S&P's MidCap 400 Index. And while Artisan has slipped nearly 4% so far this year, it is still besting the S&P MidCap 400 by almost five percentage points.

A quick history lesson. Shortly before its launch, Artisan lured away manager Andrew Stephens from Strong Capital Management, where he co-ran the highly rated Strong Asset Allocation Fund. His Artisan portfolio, with a median market cap of $2.1 billion, is based on a strategy that only considers companies with a price-earnings ratio of less than 20 times 1999 estimated earnings and good growth potential. Stephens selects companies he believes have a well-known franchise or brand advantage. An example is Fortune Brands, which sells Jim Bean Bourbon and Titleist golf balls.

"FERTILE AREA." He's also quick to pull the trigger and dump a stock that has reached its price target. For instance, he sold Knoll in January when the stock hit 30. It is now at 20. The 54 issues in the $24 million portfolio are dominated by technology and health-care stocks. Top holdings include Centocor, Liberty Media Group, and Western Wireless. "We believe the mid-cap segment of the investment universe represents the most fertile area to identify franchise companies trading at attractive prices," says Stephens, in part because the sector has been overlooked and the stocks are comparatively cheap.

In the large-stock world, fund manager Thomas Marsico earned his outstanding reputation as head of Janus Twenty, where he was chosen as Manager of the Year in 1987 by Morningstar. Indeed, Janus was consistently rated near the top of Morningstar's rankings. In December, 1997, Marsico bolted from Janus and launched two mutual funds under his own name: Marsico Focus and Marsico Growth & Income (888 860-8686). For the 12 months through Feb. 19, the funds have gained 42.8% and 36.9%, respectively, compared with 19.8% for the S&P's 500-stock index. So far this year, the two funds are up 3.5% and 2.2%, respectively.

Just as with the Janus Twenty, more than 90% of the Focus fund is invested in a core group of 20 stocks. Growth & Income holds almost all the same issues but mixes in a collection of dividend-paying stocks. That brings the total number of issues in Growth & Income to 41.

Although Focus has the better record thus far, Growth & Income is a little less risky and should hold up better if there is a sell-off in large-cap growth stocks. Dell Computer and Microsoft are the biggest winners in both mutual funds. But the two portfolios also are home to such cyclical stocks as Ford Motor and Gulfstream Aerospace, which have turned in more lackluster performances of late.

For all the pizzazz these newcomer funds have demonstrated, they don't have the stellar long-term performance records that give investors confidence. But at least the stewards handling the money have been around the Street on more than a few occasions.

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