They are the pacesetters of America's reborn economy: 500 companies with $5.7 billion in sales, a 992% growth rate, and a 402% increase in employment over the past five years. But the members of our third annual INC. 500 are more than the fastest-growing privately held companies in America. Beyond the numbers, each company represents an opportunity seized, men and women with the imagination and vision to embark on what Dick Dotts, chief executive officer of 1984's #1 company, Pedus International, calls "the rocky voyage to growth."

In the report that follows, INC. has tried to chart some of the currents and shoals along that journey. We explored the changing face of the companies on the list -- the youngest, fastest-growing, and most productive of the past three years (see page 52). We looked at the acquisition strategy Dotts used to take Pedus from $383,000 in sales in 1979 to $60.5 million in 1983 (see page 60); and we charted the growth routes of 10 other men and women, from a world-class mountaineer turned retailer to a former fashion model turned medical recruiter (see page 72). We examined what happens when CEOs decide that growth is not enough -- that as their companies change, their own course must change as well (see page 66). We looked at the mix of problems and opportunities facing a growing company in a growing industry like computers, and at those facing a company in a slow-moving industry like homebuilding (see page 85).

Finally, we explored the fate of last year's INC. 500 -- to class of 1983 -- and learned what happened to four individual entrepreneurs who fell from the list (see page 94).

Turbulent, chancy, exhilarating -- the voyage to growth requires courage and daring. But those who have been on it say it is a trip not to be missed.