Joe Ricketts can admit it now. He wasn't optimistic enough about the growth potential of the on-line brokerage industry. "The growth of the Internet absolutely caught us off guard," says the CEO of red-hot AmeriTrade, who acknowledges the paradox that being too conservative nearly caused his company to be left behind. "We thought it would take a generation for the Baby Boomers to adopt on-line as they have. We were wrong."

The result: Omaha, NE-based AmeriTrade was forced to go public ahead of schedule and tap an eight-figure credit line to fund a come-from-behind branding strategy. This year, the company will nearly triple its marketing budget to as much as $60 million. "Advertising and branding (are) key for us now," says Ricketts. "This market has a new paradigm. ...The Internet makes banking, brokerage and insurance a commodity, so you have to distinguish yourself."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.