Ilene Gordon certainly wasn't the first young girl in the 1960s to balk when told she had to take home economics instead of shop class. It's what she did about it that foreshadowed her path to the latest list of Fortune magazine's 50 most powerful women in business.
"Women were being steered into taking cooking and sewing, and I insisted that I go to shop," she said. "I had to get special permission from the principal."
That was in junior high school. By high school, she was the only girl in her physics class. College was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where men outnumbered women 18 to 1. And when she graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Management, only 19 other women walked down the aisle with her.
Fast-forward 30-plus years, and Gordon, 58, is president, chairman and chief executive of Westchester-based Corn Products International Inc. She talks over midmorning coffee at a Loop restaurant, a convenient location to exploit a fleeting hole in a hectic morning of investor meetings, about her role among corporate gender pioneers the way a veteran ballplayer might talk about learning to hit a curveball as a rookie.
She overcame the challenge. She is proud she overcame it. Now, can we talk about today's game?
"We're really excited about our company," she said, moments after a polite hello. "It's all about Corn Products and how we're growing the company, so we're happy to talk about it."
And why not? The word on the street is that the 105-year-old company is making a comeback. Once languishing, though steadily profitable, as a supplier of sweeteners, with suddenly unpopular high-fructose corn syrup as a mainstay of its product line, the company under Gordon has branched out toward a wider array of food ingredients.
A key step in the diversification strategy was the 2010 purchase of New Jersey-based National Starch, a $1.3 billion-per-year ingredients-maker. That purchase and other growth puts the company at more than $6 billion per year in annual revenue, Gordon said, adding that she expects Corn Products to land firmly within this year's Fortune 500.
Bottom line: Corn Products' stock price has more than doubled from the $23.29 on the day Gordon's hiring was announced to $51.80 Friday. So it's no surprise that she is staking her claim not only as one of Chicago's top female executives but also as one of the region's top business leaders, period.
Consider a recent Executives' Club of Chicago breakfast panel discussion on "Leadership, Chicago-Style: Executive Insights on Competitiveness and Change." It found her onstage between one of the hottest executives in town, Groupon Inc.'s Brad Keywell, and one of the most iconic, Aon founder Patrick Ryan.
Bram Bluestein, her husband of 33 years, said Gordon, formerly CEO of a packaging firm, has moved comfortably into a higher-profile role.
"Everything I see tells me that she has enjoyed learning a new business, getting around the world to meet with Corn Products employees, working with her board and interacting with external stakeholders," said Bluestein, a business management consultant.
"Being a CEO is not an easy job," said Patrick Gallagher, CEO of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., who brought Gordon onto his company's board of directors several years ago. "She's already completed a sizable acquisition. That's impressive. The stock price reflects that."
David Driscoll, a senior analyst with CitiGroup who has been watching the U.S. food-manufacturing industry for 12 years, said Gordon's performance since taking over Corn Products has been an example of "corporate strategy at its finest."
Since the market crash of 2008, he said, most CEOs have been "very tight with their cash. There were a lot of other companies that didn't take advantage of a lot of opportunities," he said. "She came through when they needed her to come through. This puts her right at the top of any CEOs of any of the companies I deal with."
Gordon took over from former CEO Sam Scott at a pivotal time for Corn Products. The company was all but bought in 2008 by Bunge Ltd., a New York-based global fertilizer and oilseed processor. But when stocks of Bunge and Corn Products tumbled after the planned acquisition was announced, part of an overall stock market plunge, the $4.8 billion deal fell apart.
Gordon took over the company in May 2009, assembled her leadership team and, during the course of several months, put together a plan to diversify and expand globally. The purchase of National Starch filled this bill nicely. She said the often-tricky process of integrating the purchased company into the new organization is going well, and analysts seem to agree.
"Operating earnings have significantly exceeded Fitch's expectations since the acquisition," said Fitch Ratings analyst Judi Rossetti, who gave Corn Products a "stable" rating in a September report.
"In the 12 years I've been covering the food sector, I haven't seen more than two or three acquisitions that were better," Driscoll said. "Frankly, this was a big issue for a very new CEO to do."
Buying National Starch gave Corn Products a research and development capability it lacked, and Corn Products, with its 100-year-plus legacy, has been able to open up markets for new National Starch products, he said.
"We were able to find an acquisition that was a good strategic fit. But we also bought it at the right price, and we financed it at the right rate," Gordon said. "All of those components are important."
The buy also diversified the company away from high-fructose corn syrup, a processed sweetener that has come under fire from some nutritionists. Driscoll said he is not worried that debate about the issue will hurt Corn Products' outlook. But it's not a bad thing, either, that the ingredient represents just slightly more than 10 percent of the company's sales.
Gordon agreed, and said it's one reason Corn Products is branching out.
"Our focus is to continue to grow in other types of starches and sweeteners, particularly in the food industry," she said. (The company's products are also used in pharmaceuticals, packaging and animal feed.) "In fact, we're in the process of adding capacity at our largest facility, in Bedford Park … to support the growth of starches for the food industry."
From global economic uncertainties to food trends to high corn costs, Corn Products faces multiple potential hazards. But analysts praise the firm for mitigating most of those risks, including hedging adeptly against volatile commodity prices.
Gordon started her career as a strategy consultant, but she said she quickly began to feel that devising strategy wasn't enough. She wanted to implement it, too, and she took a job with Packaging Corp. of America, now known as PCA.
It was there that she first got the idea that she might someday become a CEO. A key mentor didn't simply give her a good job, he put her in charge of a segment of the company's business, with bottom-line responsibility for her area's profit and loss. She had advised on acquisitions as a strategist. Now she was handling one.
"I could see that the quality of my acquisitions could get better once I ran those acquisitions," she said. "I was 30 years old, and I had entrepreneurs working for me who were 50. My challenge was, how do you excite someone and make them part of a company and glean their knowledge and grow the business? So it was quite a lot of quick learning at that age."
From that point, Gordon said, her goal was to be the CEO of a publicly traded company. Working her plan was key, but she also learned that embracing each part of the plan was more important.
"I think it's important to have a plan, to be patient, but to enjoy every position you have and not be looking for the next position. I think a lot of people in their career who have a plan, they're very transparent: That's just a steppingstone to the next job. I think it's very important to build credibility and enjoy and learn from every position you have."
If Gordon seems intensely positive, it's because she is. She said it's an attribute that has helped her navigate the perilous waters that often face ambitious women in business, who seem to get pointed questions about balancing career and family that similarly ambitious male counterparts aren't asked.
Gordon said she finds balance by delegating and brushing off the naysayers.
"It takes a willingness to be able to rely on other people. I think that what you're seeing with the women who have made it to the top, they've been willing to delegate. What I mean by that is, whether it's the live-in nanny or the full-time nanny; maybe it's some weekend help; maybe it's some family help," she said.
It's also important to have a no-nonsense approach to getting things done.
"I think I'm setting an example for some younger women in my company who are growing and balancing, that you're sending the vibe of: We're going to be focused. We're going to be efficient. We're going to get things done, but we're going to be balanced," she said. "We're going to be healthy. We're going to enjoy our families, but we're going to make things happen."
The "vibe" doesn't just rub off on young female executives, Gordon said: "It's not just women versus men. I have men on my team who have family situations, and I need to be supportive of them."
Bluestein said this focused productivity has been a key to Gordon's success. He recalled attending a holiday party many years ago when their two children were young. Gordon made a habit of driving them to school every day, and Bluestein remarked to someone at the party that it was nice that people at the company were able to start work at 9 a.m. The person said, somewhat pointedly, that "not everyone" started that late. So Bluestein raised the question good-naturedly with Gordon's boss.
"He said she gets twice as much done working 9 to 6 as most people do working a longer day," Bluestein recalled.
Gordon was also an early adopter of technology, and not just for work.
"I used to give my daughter spelling tests on my cellphone, in between meetings, because she wanted me to give the spelling tests, and I would mother from the back of a taxi," Gordon said. "That was important."
Some people would suggest that mothering from a cab isn't the same as, say, mothering at the kitchen table. These are the kinds of comments she ignores.
"Don't worry about that guilt," she said. "I think it's really about the people you surround yourself with. Do you draw strength from them?"
She said her role as the top executive is finding and keeping the best talent and instilling an entrepreneurial spirit even in a large-and-getting-larger company.
"We're all competing for the best people," she said. "Everybody can buy the right equipment. We have technology, we have patents that we've acquired. But everybody's competing for the best talent."
Key to winning that competition, she said, is knowing that "the best people want to feel like they can have an impact in decision-making."
This sort of trickle-up strategy has very basic connotations in the food industry, since "people in different parts of the world have very different tastes," she said.
"We're a very global company. Seventy percent of our sales are outside the U.S. We have 10,000 people around the world, and, therefore, we have to motivate and excite a global world," she said. "I need my leaders out in the field, in South America and in Thailand and in China and in Canada, to believe in the vision and what we're driving."
There was a time when an executive talking too much about things like buy-in and consensus-building might rub up against an expectation of a CEO being more tough-talking. But Gordon said success now is much more about what leaders get out of people.
"I think our world has changed," she said. "It's true, you need leaders who make tough decisions. But it's really all about motivating people."
Chairman, president and chief executive, Corn Products International.
Family: Married to Bram Bluestein, a management consultant. They have two grown children and live in Chicago.
Education: A native of Newton, Mass., just outside Boston, she graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Majored in math as an undergraduate, then earned a Master of Science in business from MIT's Sloan School of Management.
Career: Former CEO of Alcan Packaging, a global packaging business, which had her commuting from Chicago to Paris for several years; president of Pechiney Plastic Packaging; before that she spent 17 years in executive roles at the Packaging Corporation of America, now known as PCA. Began her career at the Boston Consulting Group.
Other boards: Serves as a director of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., an international insurance brokerage and risk management business; Northwestern Memorial Hospital; The Executives' Club of Chicago; and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Also is a trustee of The Conference Board. Served as a director of United Stationers.
Interests: Enjoys golf, reading and travel, and is a movie buff, especially independent films.