Settling in at 20,000 feet, Tom Peters looks totally at home in the Lear Jet he's chartered to fly him from Washington to New Jersey where he will catch a helicopter to whisk him to a noontime reception and speech in mid-Manhattan.

"Hey, I know I'm lucky," says the co-author of the monstrously bestselling "In Search of Excellence" and its newly released sequel "A Passion for Excellence."

The limousine that greets Peters at the heliport snails crosstown to the hotel reception where he is guest of honor and featured speaker at a Sales Executive Club of New York luncheon. Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics introduces Peters to the 900-person throng that paid $35 a head to eat roast chicken and hear him speak.

Stoutly built and immaculately dressed, Peters strolls up to the lectern to deliver The Speech.

It is the foundation of his rapidly growing fortune and reputation -- the same pitch he's been giving to business audiences since just before "Search" was published in 1982. Rich with anecdotes and homiles, it stresses the value of people and customers and common sense:

"I'm a small businessman, you know. So I like to go back to the accounting department every four or five days and look at the checks coming in. I like to touch them and feel them and hold them up to the light, you know.

"And I've done this scientific survey, you know. And not one of those checks has ever been signed by a market. They're all signed by people. By customers."

Working the crowd like an oldtime Baptist preacher, Peters pounds the pulpit, jumps around on the stage and yells to the audience until his voice turns hoarse.

"The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The companies that worry the most about doing it right are usually the ones that are already doing it right. It turns out that my biggest customer is IBM . . . .

"The customer perceives service on his or her own sweet, idiosyncratic, irrational and unpredictable terms . . ."

One woman at the next table keeps nodding and murmuring "He's right; he's right; he's absolutely right" as Peters stridently extolls the importance of customer service.

When the perspiring Peters finishes, this crowd of New Yorkers rises to its feet to give him a spontaneous standing ovation.

Yes, Tom Peters certainly is lucky. Through a crazily serendipitous mix of corporate adulation, media acclamation, self-promotion and timing, he has become the management guru of the 1980s.

He has cleverly and deliberately parlayed his "In Search of Excellence" from an outrageously successful book (more than 5 million copies in print worldwide) into an outrageously profitable corporation modestly called The Tom Peters Group.

Fueled by his relentless energy, the Group is a multimillion dollar miniconglomerate dedicated to spreading the Peters management gospel to whoever will listen and pay for the privilege. It leaves no medium unturned.

An in-the-flesh Peters can command up to $20,000 a crack for his hellfire and brimstone speeches. Last year, he criss-crossed the country dozens of times to deliver some 300 talks to the tune of more than $1.5 million plus expenses. (Roughly a third of his talks are delivered for free.)

He runs the Center for Management Excellence, which conducts four-day California seminar/retreats for top corporate managers who pay $3,800 each to attend.

On paper, Peters does famously as well. The newly published "A Passion for Excellence," which Peters co-authored with Nancy Austin, was featured as a Fortune magazine cover story and now rests comfortably on the New York Times bestseller list. (It was a best seller before its official publication date.)

Random House publisher Robert Bernstein estimates "at least" half a million copies of the book will be sold. With royalties estimated at $3 per book, Peters and Austin stand to split a cool $1.5 million. Warner Books recently purchased the paperback rights to "Passion" for $1.3 million. Another book is in the works.

The truly passionate searcher for excellence could also catch Peters on his Public Broadcasting System special last year; purchase Peters' "Excellence" videotapes; hear him on "Excellence" audio cassettes; and, yes, soon even interact with him on "Excellence" IBM Personal Computer compatible software. He is a millionaire several times over.

The commercialization of Tom Peters transcends his torrents of cash flow. In the finest new tradition of pop iconography, Peters will soon tape a television ad for American Express -- "Do you know me . . .?"

Despite the hype, Peters is light years away from being the Elmer Gantry of management evangelism. He's too smart and self-aware to be either a zealot or a huckster. He's more the sort of guy who takes pride in the fact that he got himself fired from his $250,000 a year position as a McKinsey & Co. consultant where "In Search of . . . " was written. (Among other shortcomings, he had the unfortunate -- and definitively unMcKinseyesque-habit of wearing shorts to the office.)

"McKinsey was a totally repressive environment," he allows.

Peters is also the sort of guy who can't quite decide whether he wants to be seen as provocative or iconoclastic -- he says he has "nothing but contempt" for most of the Fortune 500 managers he's come across -- but he's having much too much fun to care.

In addition to his Palo Alto home, Peters and a lady friend (he is once-divorced) share a farm in Vermont where they plan to launch a small maple syrup business.

Right now, though, Peters' itinerary is his long-term strategic plan, and he takes a perverse pleasure in having a cult following.

"It has evolved into a semiconscious choice to be doing all this," he says, "I just want to go faster."

Peters' peripatetic style and self-promotional zest doesn't obscure a stiletto intellect more than equal to the task of handling the slings and arrows of outraged academics and business critics. His own academic and consulting background -- spiced with a smooth "aw shucks" sincerity -- blunts most accusations that he is little more than a managerial "Dr. Feelgood" with the latest recipe for corporate success.

At 42, the Baltimore-bred Peters is a Cornell-trained engineer who served with the Seabees in Vietnam before going on to study organizational development at Stanford University. After a brief stint in the White House as a drug abuse policy adviser, Peters went to McKinsey where, he says, he quickly grew bored "doing the same analyses every three months for different clients . . . . Consultants are basically parasites."

"Search" was a spin-off of a project Peters and partner Robert Waterman were doing for Siemens AG, the giant German electronics company. Almost as soon as it was published, the book shot to the top of the charts and stayed there.

"It was a backlash to all the Japanese management stuff and the rise of the MBAs," says Peters. "It also came out the same week the White House announced 10 percent unemployment."

U.S. business was on the ropes, the Japanese had suddenly emerged as super-managers, and there was an unsuspected market for an optimistic look at the secrets of success within America's best-run companies.

Their book, stressing the simple human values of listening to customers and employes, answered a yearning for a uniquely American style of management that could give U.S. companies a badly needed edge in global competition. The time was ripe for managers to look and see if there was more to the bottom line than red or black ink.

"It's very much the 'Nixon to China' syndrome," says Peters, "Here were a couple of guys from McKinsey -- the Mecca of quant atative jockery -- putting humanistic values in the context of profit making."

Indeed, there's almost a biblical flavor to "Excellence." The book is divided into related chapters, each with its own little allegories and heroes and legends that all pay homage to how caring, compassion and focus can lift ordinary people into corporate greatness. Where the Old Testament has a solid core of Ten Commandments, "Search" has eight.

Peters' principles don't stress nuts-and-bolts questions of organizational structures and processes; they emphasize personal values like enthusiasm and pride and commitment. Quality doesn't just mean having the finest product, it also means answering the phone on the first ring.

Critics -- who are both numerous and vociferous (The Harvard Business Review contemptuously dismissed the book) -- say, Peters is, at best, little more than a hip 1980s version of management consultant and best-selling author Peter Drucker. Where the 75 year-old Vienna-born Drucker exudes an old-world air of academe and elitism, Peters is an unabashed populist. Where Drucker is scholarly and analytical, Peters is folksy and anecdotal. Where Drucker is a mountain climber and a connoisseur of Japanese art, Peters is a rabid Baltimore Orioles fan who truly believes that Earl Weaver symbolizes superb management style.

What Peters and Drucker share is an ability to synthesize and articulate a coherent view of management despite the fact that neither has ever managed an enterprise of any significance. (Peters is obviously trying to change that).

Peters acknowledges a heavy debt to Drucker. In fact, he once wrote an essay contrasting Drucker's management oeuvre with the concepts espoused in "Search" and "Passion."

"Drucker really is the father of most of this stuff," says Peters, "except that he dismisses the importance of intuition in management. We revel in it."

For his part, Drucker has both publicly and privately dismissed Peters' work as nothing more than an intellectual fad that will soon fade into little more than a footnote.

The irony here is that when Drucker's work first appeared, it was brutally criticized as a superficial rehash of what was already known. Business schools, for the most part, ignored it and Drucker was perceived as a talented observer with a gift for stating the obvious.

Now, of course, Drucker is widely regarded as the leading management philosopher of the 20th century. However, Peter Drucker chose not to become Peter Drucker, Inc. whereas Tom Peters positively basks in the financial glow of his success. He's enjoying the ride.

"Drucker was quoted as saying ' the "Excellence" craze had 18 months to go,' " says Peters, gesturing towards the Lear Jet, "and that was 12 months ago. So I guess I have six months left."