Will the real Tom Peters please stand up?

After five years of preaching the gospel of corporate excellence in blockbuster bestsellers such as "In Search of Excellence" and "A Passion for Excellence," Peters is taking it all back -- or at least most of it.

Forget the whole theory of excellence, and the eight basic principles to stay on top of the heap. "There are no excellent companies," said Peters, raising the curtain on his new book, "Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution," which hits the bookstores tomorrow.

Even his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, felt it had to prepare readers -- or "fans" -- for the incongruity of it all. "This message may seem ludicrous to those who know Tom Peters as the co-author of 'In Search of Excellence' and 'A Passion for Excellence,' the two most successful management books in publishing history," warned the Knopf promotion department.

The message of the book may not be ludicrous, but it will take a leap of faith for those who grew addicted to the old, optimistic, upbeat Tom Peters who believed treating employes well, fostering innovation and putting the customer first were the secrets of "excellent" companies.

"There is good news from America," he and co-author Robert Waterman Jr. told readers of "In Search of Excellence." "Good management practice today is not resident only in Japan. But more important, the good news comes from treating people decently and asking them to shine, and from producing things that work."

It was an attempt to liberate businesses from the traditional statistical and theoretical tools used to measure performance. And, at a time when American business was developing an inferiority complex brought on by foreign competition and its own dissatisfied customers, Tom Peters and his simple, anecdotal observations were like a breath of fresh air.

"His work came along at a great time and it was a boost in morale for managers at just the time they needed it," said economist and author Pat Choate. From that time, Peters, and his preacher-like belief in his message, spread like prairie fire as he became a multimillion-dollar industry in himself.

He tears between a home in California and a 900-acre farm in Vermont as he runs a company called The Tom Peters Group. Every month, he is out speaking for a few days.

This month it was to the Employees Association of Detroit, the public television station in Irvine, Calif., and a management group in Toronto. He gives about 150 speeches a year, charging anything from nothing to $30,000.

Then there is a weekly syndicated newspaper column, a monthly newsletter, videos, taped cassettes, management learning packages, consulting and the now-famous "skunk camps," or seminars led by Peters for top management that cost "skunks" $3,800 to attend.

The widespread acceptance of "In Search of Excellence" and "A Passion for Excellence," which was written with Nancy Austin, also brought appearances on three PBS television shows, a syndicated radio broadcast and spots on two business news television programs.

The former partner at McKinsey & Co. also has been asked to testify on congressional panels.

So why tamper with the magic formula? Now, Peters' pitch has the overtones of a Stephen King novel rather than the chirpiness of a Dale Carnegie course. "Our competitive situation is dire." "No company is safe."

"In such a world, merely aspiring to be excellent will prove disastrous." "Madness is afoot." Peters explained that he had to take on a more strident, demanding tone because the "excellence phenomenon" has not led to rapid enough transformation by most firms. "I have some slight hope it will at least get people mad," said Peters, who will be in Washington promoting the book on Thursday. "I hope it will trigger people to seriously assess the potential gravity of where we sit right now," he added.

Meet the new Tom Peters. The Worrier. He is worried about what he calls "the accelerating American decline" -- a nation beset by poor productivity, slumping per capita GNP, declining wages, an anemic savings rate and chaos in trade. "It's madness," said Peters, "and one finds the Roger Smiths of the GM's going through the world with a grin on their faces. Half the time, I am discouraged to the point of despair. The answers are so obvious, but we've created institutions genetically indisposed to change," he said.

To help them change, Peters offers 45 specific prescriptions, his own theory of management. Many of them are recast from his earlier thoughts about customer responsiveness, innovation and empowering employes. Some of the companies he lionized in the past show up again. But this time, he offers his devotees directions down to the minute on how to meet goals and change bad habits. He suggests, for example, that companies begin developing a vision: "Take any angle on the process you can think of -- but start today."

It's not clear whether the book will shoot to the top of the best-seller list like the two previous ones, but Knopf already has "Chaos" in its third printing. Some 212,500 copies are spoken for, and only about five days of promotion are planned for the book. Knopf said a generous first printing usually consists of about 50,000 copies. Though he has a loyal following, there also is the chance that Peters will encounter some of the criticism that followed his earlier books.

After the publication of "In Search of Excellence," Daniel T. Carroll, a management consultant who was president of Gould Inc. from 1975 to 1980, roundly criticized in the Harvard Business Review the book's conceptual and research underpinnings that rely heavily on secondary sources. Carroll has not changed his mind since then about the value of what he calls "popularized management. It's the kind of stuff found on TV news," said Carroll. "It's the world today in five minutes."

Robert Reich, an expert on political economy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said Peters hits the nail on the head about half the time. "What Tom does, he does well," said Reich. "But the question remains how relevant are his homilies for the real world of American management struggling to be competitive?"

Peters may also get some competition from former McKinsey colleague and co-author Waterman, who has out a book called "The Renewal Factor," which strikes some of the same chords.

"Thriving on Chaos" -- sparked by a pamphlet called "The Promises," which offered direction to skunk camp participants -- acknowledges that companies operate in environments that they cannot always control. It also is more judicious about picking corporate heroes after many of those singled out in his other books have taken mighty tumbles, a fact that publications such as Business Week did not overlook.

Some corporations such as People Express Co., hailed as an example of innovative management, no longer exist. But in what appears to be almost a coming of age for the 44-year-old author, Peters admitted that there was virtually no context for the first book. As he put it, it was just the suggestion of "neat change."

"The feeling we gave, unintentionally, was that there was this marvelous state of excellence and grace and all you had to do was retain this beatific state," said Peters. "We underestimated the challenge."