In six years, Dick Downey steered his Chattanooga automotive parts business from start-up to a 116-store empire spanning three states (see INC., August 1982, page 77). On the strength of promotional efforts that add up to a six-year blitz of the Southeast market, Downey Automotive Inc.'s sales sprang from a mere $100,000 in 1976 to more than $20 million in 1982.

Despite spectacular success, however, Downey was dissatisfied with his company's image-building efforts. With the help of a widely advertised mascot and slogan -- "Save a Buck with the Downey Duck" -- the auto centers had become known as a source for good buys. "But we also want to be known as good guys," Downey explains. Last spring, he began casting for solutions to the promotional riddle: What could Downey Automotive do to contribute to the community, create a good-guy image, and, of course, continue to build traffic in the stores The answer proved to be one of the best fish stories of 1982.

Downey announced on June 1, 1982, that his company was sponsoring a "Million-Dollar Fish Fight (against Childhood Cancer)" in nearby Lake Chickamauga. Fifty fish would be tagged, one of which would be worth $1 million in cash. Excluding Downey employees, all anglers would be eligible to try their luck on the first Saturday in September. There was one catch: To fish in the day-long contest, each angler had to drop by a Downey's store and buy a $10 "license." All proceeds would be donated to St. Jude Children's Researeh Hospital in Memphis, a world famous facility dedicated to finding a cure for childhood cancer The goal was $250,000.

Show-business personality Danny Thomas, a founder of St. Jude's, cut radio and TV commercials to promote the million-dollar fish fight. Downey suppliers sponsored prizes, including cash awards of up to $10,000. Print and broadcast media jumped on the bandwagon, promoting the Downey contest through talk shows, billboards, and front-page stories. Downey itself ran paid ads to supplement the summer-long press coverage.

Two days before the event, the Tennessee Department of Wildlife Resources released 50 tagged fish, which were worth a total of $1,035,515 in cash prizes plus items ranging from a $15,000 bass boat to fishing rods and motor oil. Everything was fine but the weather -- and the fish.

On the morning of the big contest, a cold gray drizzle fell on the lake. But the weather didn't deter 2,600 fishermen intent on landing the $1 million prize. The first winner was an angler whose out-board motor conked out shortly after he pushed away from the dock. Dejectedly, he dropped his line and instantly netted the first fish, worth $1,000. Several other fish were caught, but not the million-dollar one, a 6 1/2-pound bass with its own apparent sense of gamesmanship. Downey has since extended the contest and is still offering cash rewards that include $5,000 for the elusive $1 million bass and $50 for any other fish carrying the contest tag. At press time, 11 fish had been caught. And $26,190 has been turned over to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, with a pledge to keep the campaign going.

Besides the question of where the big bass is hiding, several others remain unanswered. Some people wonder if Dick Downey, in effect, was betting $1 million that the big fish would not be caught. On the contrary, "I prayed that bass would be brought in," he says True to his reputation as an entrepreneur, Downey had an angle for his angling. The big bass was insured with a subsidiary of Lloyd's of London at a premium of $35,000 -- whether it was hooked or not. Had it been caught, the lueky angler would have landed an annuity worth $50,000 a year for 20 years.

What would Downey do if he had it to do over again? "Make that sucker a little smaller," he muses. "Bigger bass are not as hungry and a whole lot smarter." Will he do it again? Downey answers that question by noting that advertising manager Barbara Ratley is already drawing up plans for Downey Automotive's Second Annual Million-Dollar Fish Fight. It seems there could be only one loser in the last contest -- a 6 1/2-pound bass. And, so far, even he has come up a winner.