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Sometimes, losing it all turns out to be the push an entrepreneur needs to move on to the next big thing.

At least it was for Pete Ellis, who seven years ago lost everything to bankruptcy: two houses, $15 million and his 16 California and Arizona car dealerships. But Auto-By-Tel Chairman-CEO Mr. Ellis, 52, didn't lose his long-held belief that the distribution system of selling cars had to change.

The explosion of consumer interest in the Internet only solidified his conviction that here was an opportunity to do just that.

Founded in 1995, privately held Auto-By-Tel (, is one of the Net's most lucrative businesses, generating more than $500 million in sales a month by simply helping customers cyber-research cars and trucks to their heart's content. Orders are routed to one of the 2,700 member dealerships located closest to the client. That dealership, with exclusive Auto-By-Tel rights in its market, is expected to follow up and close the deal.

Mr. Ellis, who owned his first dealership at 24, at first thought Auto-By-Tel would generate about 500 purchase requests weekly from the Web. "But we moved 1,348 cars in our first four days online, and we had to scramble to reevaluate our business plan," he says.

This year, he expects to process 1.5 million requests for cars. Mr. Ellis credits a strong brand image -- both online and off -- as well as a $20 million marketing and advertising budget this year as the foundation of Auto-By-Tel's market leadership.

Mr. Ellis hopes to expand Auto-By-Tel internationally, and he moved the ad account this spring to Grey Interactive, New York, from RBI Communications, Hollywood, Calif. RBI, which continues to handle publicity, initiated Auto-By-Tel's brand strategy and created Auto-By-Tel's 1997 and 1998 Super Bowl TV spots, making it the first online company in the big event.

But recent deals with auto dealers in the Nordic countries and the U.K., and agreements pending in three other countries, mean developing a partnership with an operation with international connections, he says. With Auto-By-Tel setting the pace, the road ahead appears increasingly smooth.

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