(FORTUNE Magazine) – If you're starting a business yourself, then here's Vinod Gupta, a fellow entrepreneur you'll likely be needing. His American Business Information compiles reams of corporate data, slicing and dicing them so that new businesses have a cheap way to find potential customers, manufacturers, or distributors. The information is available in all kinds of forms, from computer diskettes to telemarketing lists, to pre-printed mailing labels, to 3-by-5 index cards. The newest hot-selling format: CD-ROMs. At $39.95, one contains 70 million U.S. households, listing names, zip codes, and other information useful to marketers. His top-of-the-line CD goes for $2,500. It lists ten million businesses, and tells who owns them and how many are on the payroll. It also gives revenue figures and credit ratings. When the books close, ABI's 1994 sales should hit $75 million, up 27% from 1993, with $12.8 million in profits, a 19% increase.

Gupta, 48, never imagined such sums as a kid. The child of a doctor practicing in a small village 100 miles from India's capital of New Delhi, he "grew up with no electricity, no roads, no toilets, no TVs, no cars. I didn't know much of what was outside," he recalls. Gupta studied agricultural engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology and won a scholarship to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, where he earned master's degrees in agricultural engineering and business.

Ironically, this Information Age company started out in the most low-tech way imaginable. Armed with his MBA, Gupta landed a job in Omaha as a marketing executive at Commodore Corp., a maker of mobile homes, which assigned him to put together a list of every dealer in the U.S. for its sales force. To do so, Gupta ordered all 4,800 Yellow Pages directories then available; they duly arrived at his office free of charge because Commodore had WATS lines. "My boss said, 'Vinny, you gotta get these books outta here by five or I'm gonna fire you.' So I hired a moving company and moved them to my garage."

Commodore balked at the $10,000 in labor costs of putting the list together, but allowed Gupta to do it on his own. He defrayed expenses by also selling the list to other dealers. "Starting with $100 of my own, I sent out a mailing to about 1,000 manufacturers to see if they wanted to buy the list. In about three weeks we had orders for about $22,000, and $13,000 in checks." That first year he made an $18,000 profit on revenues of $44,000. Then he quit his day job.

Although he seemingly stumbled upon his niche, it took a keen marketing sense to expand so successfully. With the universe of mobile-home dealers covered, Gupta methodically added other industries. Motorcycle, bicycle, boat, car, tractor, and CB radio dealers were among the first targets. The demand for accurate business-to-business marketing information extended to just about every industry. "I would go to trade shows and work the exhibits, and I would tell them about our lists. People would just say, 'Yeah, I've been looking for this forever.' " The key was keeping costs reasonable and providing efficient service. "If somebody wanted a list of ten states and there were like 2,000 names," says Gupta, "we would sell it for $160, 8 cents a name, in a list form, and send it right away, the same day or the next."

It took 13 years, but in 1986, ABI had the entire Yellow Pages in its databases, ready to be accessed in any form that customers wanted. Gupta had no fear of big data source competitors like Dun & Bradstreet because their corporate customers, like 3M, MCI, or AT&T, want correspondingly large databases and can afford the big guys' average $10,000 charge. "Nobody wanted to mess with the small office equipment dealer worth a $200 order," he says.

Except Gupta, and by continually plowing back the profits, he has built ABI into a business with 400,000 customers and 7,500 industry categories. Some 700 employees make 14 million phone calls a year, verifying, updating, and adding to data that now also include information collected from the White Pages, annual reports, and local chambers of commerce directories.

When he took the company public in 1992, Gupta's strategy changed from slow, leisurely expansion to one of continuous growth. Otherwise, he notes, "if you miss the quarter, they shoot you." But going public brought other benefits. "I've got enough money to live on forever. I own six million shares and am worth over $100 million. I go home to India today, and my uncles can't imagine it." The divorced Gupta vacations "two or three months a year," returning to visit India, relaxing at his condo on Maui, cruising on his yacht, or exploring a new part of the world. His success has made him philosophical. "Going back to India teaches you to be content with yourself. They don't have any material possessions, but they have all the time in the world. There is more contentment in people of the Third World than of the First World. I have a dual perception of both."