America’s 10 Most Powerful Female CEOs

Women & DiversityLittle by little, women are stepping into a growing share of executive posts at major corporations.

And research suggests those corporations are better for it: Grant Thornton’s 2012 International Business Report says companies with more women on senior management teams or boards are likely to have higher stock growth and sales, as well as better returns on equity and invested capital.

Still, women constitute only one-fifth of senior-management roles globally, and only 1 in 10 businesses has a female CEO. Among Fortune 1000 companies, women currently hold only 39 CEO positions, according to Catalyst Research; however, four of those run Dow Jones Industrial Average components.

Here’s a look at the top 10 female CEOs of American companies based on Fortune‘s 2012 ranking of company size, limited to women named CEO by Dec. 31, 2011:

Beth E. Mooney, Chairman and CEO
KeyCorp (499th)

Profile: Beth Elaine Streeter Mooney was born in Midland, Mich., in 1955. The 56-year-old Mooney earned a BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and an MBA at Southern Methodist University. She was appointed CEO of KeyCorp (NYSE:KEY) on May 1, 2011, and is the first female head of a major publicly traded U.S. bank.

The Story: When Beth Mooney graduated from college in 1977, the only job she could get was as a secretary in a bank — at a salary of $10,000 a year. Although the energetic and focused Mooney knew she could do much more, her biggest problem was convincing bank managers that she could.

So Mooney pounded the pavement, unsuccessfully calling on major Dallas banks. By the time she got to Republic Bank, she took a different approach. In a display of true grit and tenacity, she sweetly but firmly refused to leave the manager’s office without a job. After three hours of wrangling, he caved — but only if she’d agree get her MBA by night. She did.

The 35-year banking-industry veteran, who was senior executive VP and CFO for AmSouth Bancorporation before joining KeyCorp in 2006, never stopped mastering the next challenge. She became KeyCorp’s vice chairman of community banking right before the financial meltdown and is credited with helping the bank weather the storm.

Although KeyCorp has not yet repaid the $2.5 billion in funds it received from the federal government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program — and profit fell last quarter on higher loan-loss reserves — Mooney has KEY on stronger footing.

Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO
Xerox (127th)

Profile: Ursula Burns was born in New York City on Sept. 20, 1958. The 53-year-old Burns earned her BS in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and her MS in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. She was appointed CEO of Xerox (NYSE:XRX) on July 1, 2009, and is the first African-American woman to become CEO of a Fortune 500 company.

The Story: The daughter of Panamanian immigrants, Burns was raised in the Baruch Houses projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side by a single mother who sacrificed to send her three children to Catholic school. Her mother never let her know how tough the going was. “I can still hear her telling me that where you are is not who you are,” Burns once said. “If you’re in a bad place, it’s only temporary and shouldn’t change the core value of what you can bring to the world.”

Burns knew early on what she could bring to the world — a brilliant grasp of numbers. She took that gift to Xerox in 1980, where she worked as a summer mechanical-engineering intern. She grew in her career to lead several business teams, including the company’s color business and office network-printing unit.

After becoming senior VP of Corporate Strategic Services, Burns took charge of manufacturing and supply-chain operations. Working in partnership with Xerox’s first female CEO, Anne Mulcahy, her leadership grew to encompass all major operations.

Since becoming CEO, Burn has moved Xerox into the highly lucrative business-services market with the $6.4 billion acquisition of Affiliated Computer Services. Not one to rest on her laurels, Burns is positioning Xerox to compete in the next great revolution: providing technology for the health-insurance exchanges mandated under national health reform.

Carol Meyrowitz, President and CEO
TJX Companies (125th)

Profile: Meyrowitz was born in 1954, the daughter of a New York furrier. A 29-year veteran of TJX, she has served in several key positions, including VP of TJX Companies and president of Marmaxx Group. She was appointed CEO of TJX Companies (NYSE:TJX) on Jan. 28, 2007.

The Story: If you’re looking for a CEO with both substance and style, look no further than TJX’s Meyrowitz. She started her retail career as an assistant buyer for luxury retailer Saks (NYSE:SKS), where her unerring eye for quality and upscale fashion served her well.

In 1983, Meyrowitz took that highly evolved sense of design, trend-spotting talent and shrewd sense of what shoppers want to off-price retailer TJX, whose store chains include T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s and Home Goods. It was a match made in shopaholic heaven.

Meyrowitz built on TJX’s “treasure hunter” value proposition, keeping the hunt fresh with upscale, usually current-season designer merchandise for 20% to 60% off department-store prices.

When the economy tanked early in her tenure, CEO, Meyrowitz pulled off several coups.

TJX not only resisted pressure to cut back on ad buys, it used pricey television spots to educate consumers about TJX’s “brand names for low prices.” When department stores canceled their orders with designers, TJX picked them up for a bargain, sending the company’s sales up 7% in recession-ravaged 2009.

Under Meyrowitz, the company’s performance continues to beat expectations.

Ellen Kullman, Chairman and CEO
DuPont (72nd)

Profile: Ellen Jamison Kullman was born in Wilmington, Del., in January 1956. The 56-year-old Kullman earned her BS in mechanical engineering from Tufts University and an MBA at Northwestern. She was appointed CEO of DuPont (NYSE:DD) on Oct. 1, 2008.

The Story: On the surface, the timing of Ellen Kullman’s ascent to the CEO position at 200-year-old-plus DuPont couldn’t have been worse: two weeks after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Sales were canceled, volume plummeted and the company’s 60,000 employees were running scared. But in the end, the gathering storm turned out to be the finest hour for the 24-year DuPont veteran, who had started as a marketing manager.

Kullman’s approach to surviving the Great Recession: focus on the things the company could control. She asked all employees to take two weeks off without pay — voluntarily. (Executives were asked to take three weeks). The company reached 70% of its time-off goal, which lowered its expenses by $700 million in 2009.

DuPont not only survived, it rebounded. Despite the fact that her tenure encompassed the entire Great Recession, the company’s stock has risen 50% under her leadership, compared with the Dow’s 19% return over that same period.

Kullman’s $6.3 billion acquisition of Danish enzyme company Danisco was icing on the cake, giving DuPont better exposure to the emerging-growth biofuels market.

Irene Rosenfeld, Chairman and CEO
Kraft (50th)

Profile: Irene Blecker Rosenfeld was born in Westbury, N.Y., on May 3, 1953. The 59-year-old earned a BA in psychology, an MS in business and a PhD in marketing and statistics from Cornell University. She was appointed CEO of Kraft (NYSE:KFT) on June 26, 2006.

The Story: It takes a bold CEO to pursue the U.K.’s most iconic candy company over its management’s — and the British public’s — fervent objections. It’s an act of high-wire daring to do so over top Kraft shareholder Warren Buffett’s public objections. Yet Rosenfeld captured Cadbury in 2011 for the bargain price of $19.6 billion.

The “Oracle of Omaha,” whose Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A,B) owned more than 9% of KFT, blasted the Cadbury deal at the time, quipping to CNBC that the deal made him feel “poor” and that he would block it if he could. He subsequently sold 31.5 million shares of Kraft — 23% of his total holdings — over the “dumb” deal.

Rosenfeld was unfazed, trusting in her three decades of food-and-beverage industry experience to steer the right course for the company and its shareholders. The eventual outcome has vindicated Rosenfeld’s decision.

Buffett may have sold KFT, but other investors bought — and the stock rose nearly 16%. When the deal was done, Sanford Bernstein analyst Andrew Wood described it as having “the lowest multiple of any major M&A deal in the global-food space in well over a decade.”

Today, Cadbury is the crown jewel in Kraft’s $31 billion international snack-foods group, which is set to split into one of two separate companies by year’s end. (The other is KFT’s $17 billion North American grocery business.) Rosenfeld will remain chairman and CEO of the confectionery-and-snacks company, which will be called Mondelez International.

Angela Braly, Chairman, President and CEO
WellPoint (45th)

Profile: Angela Braly was born in Dallas, Texas, on July 1, 1961. The 50-year-old Braly earned a bachelor’s degree at Texas Tech and her juris doctor degree from Southern Methodist University. She was appointed CEO of WellPoint (NYSE:WLP) on June 1, 2007.

The Story: In the era of health-care reform, it’s not easy being the head of a health-insurance company. And Angela Braly has taken more than her share of lumps. Huffington Post writer Jamie Court recently labeled Braly the “Marie Antoinette of Health Insurance,” arguing that “it’s high time to dethrone Braly and all the other health-insurance monarchs.”

Braly is tough enough to take the criticism and keep moving forward. She started her professional career as a lawyer in private practice with Lewis, Rice & Fingersh in St. Louis. She joined RightChoice Managed Care as general counsel in 1999, becoming part of WellPoint after the companies merged in 2001. At WellPoint she managed the nation’s largest Medicare claims-processing business and the federal employee health-benefits business.

Braly’s diverse skill set — lawyer, public affairs officer and health-insurance executive — has been a boon for WellPoint, particularly when President Obama in 2010 repeated allegations that the company was “systematically dropping the coverage of women with breast cancer.”

Firing back a terse letter, Braly wrote: “Despite your claims, WellPoint does not single out women with breast cancer for rescission.”

Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO
PepsiCo (41st)

Profile: Indra Nooyi was born in Chennai, India, on Oct. 28, 1955. The 56-year-old Nooyi earned a BS in chemistry, physics and mathematics from Madras Christian College; an MBA from the Indian School of Management in Calcutta and a masters in public and private management from Yale School of Management. She was appointed chairman and CEO of PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP) on Oct. 1, 2006.

The Story: An 18-year PepsiCo veteran, Nooyi has been leading the beverage company’s restructuring. That includes the company’s high-profile spin-off and sale of its Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut restaurants into Tricon Global Restaurants — now known as Yum Brands (NYSE:YUM).

Nooyi, who has a reputation for being a driven and confident leader, presides over PEP’s 22 billion-dollar brands, including Pepsi-Cola, Quaker, Gatorade, Frito-Lay and Tropicana. She also spearheaded PEP’s $13.4 billion acquisition of Quaker Oats as well as the $3.3 billion acquisition of Tropicana.

Recently, she has experienced some reversals. Last year, Coca-Cola’s (NYSE:KO) Diet Coke passed Pepsi as America’s second-most-popular soda. (Coke still holds the No. 1 spot.) Critics also have found fault with the lack of stock-price growth under her tenure.

Patricia Woertz, Chairman, President and CEO
Archer Daniels Midland (28th)

Profile: Patricia Woertz was born in Pittsburgh, Pa., on March 17, 1953. The 59-year-old former executive VP at energy giant Chevron (NYSE:CVX) earned her BS in accounting at Penn State. She was appointed CEO of Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) on April 27, 2006.

The Story: When Woertz walked into ADM as CEO in 2006, she already had two strikes against her. She’s the first outsider ever to take the helm of the more-than-100-year-old company. She’s also the company’s first female CEO. Woertz’s predecessor, G. Allen Andreas, didn’t take kindly to the board’s choice of successor. Woertz also faced opposition from senior executives early on but has since won over her detractors.

Woertz began her career as a certified public accountant with what would later become Ernst & Young. In 1977 she joined Gulf Oil, where she held various positions in refining, marketing, strategic planning and finance. When Gulf and Chevron merged in 1987, Woertz took charge of international operations, eventually becoming president of Chevron International.

But when Chevron merged with Texaco in 2001, Woertz’s dreams of becoming a CEO were delayed. She was named executive VP of the combined company’s downstream operations.

A year later, the unit’s earnings hit a reef — falling from $1.2 billion to $43 million as refining margins collapsed. Woertz replaced senior managers, cut costs by $500 million, improved safety and negotiated better oil deals for her refineries. That gave her the credentials for the ADM job.

Since joining ADM, she has expanded its sourcing, transportation and processing networks and delivered strong financial results. Although ADM is facing obstacles that include a surfeit of ethanol and European oilseed-processing challenges, Woertz said in an investors’ call last week that current restructuring efforts will save the company $150 million.

Virginia ‘Ginni’ Rometty, President and CEO
IBM (19th)

Profile: Rometty was born in a Chicago suburb in July 1957. The 54-year-old received a BS in computer science/electrical engineering with high honors from Northwestern University. She was appointed CEO of IBM (NYSE:IBM) on Oct. 25, 2011.

The Story: For Rometty, becoming IBM’s first woman CEO in the computer giant’s 100-year history has been an easier task than becoming the first female member of Augusta National, the all-male club that hosts golf’s annual Masters Tournament. Since IBM is a sponsor of the event, the company’s CEOs traditionally have been invited to join the club. Rometty was not.

While the club rethinks whether or not to admit women (club member Warren Buffett says it’s time for a change), Rometty has other priorities to attend to, including expanding the company’s high-value enterprise solutions and executing the company’s 2015 Roadmap — a transformational strategy she helped craft.

IBM is moving away from the hardware business to take advantage of global markets and more profitable businesses, such as software and services. Rometty, a 31-year IBM veteran who started as a systems engineer, most recently was senior vice president/group executive for IBM sales. Her leadership in global markets brought in nearly $100 billion in sales during 2010.

As senior VP of IBM Global Business Services, she built a team of more than 100,000 consulting and services specialists and successfully integrated PriceWaterhouseCoopers into IBM.

Meg Whitman, President and CEO
Hewlett-Packard (10th)

Profile: Meg Whitman was born on Aug. 4, 1956, in Oyster Bay, N.Y. The 55-year-old received a BA in economics from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. She was appointed CEO of Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) on Sept. 22, 2011.

The Story: When HP’s board showed CEO Leo Apotheker the door last September, they knew the 73-year-old tech giant needed fresh blood. Who better to shake things up than former eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) president and CEO and California Republican gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.

With Whitman seven and a half months into the job, IT research firm Gartner reports that HP’s PC sales grew by 3.5% in the first quarter, blowing away the industry average of 1.7%. Whitman is already planning to merge HP’s computer and printer lines and is staking a claim in the white-hot cloud-computing arena.

As an undergraduate at Princeton, Whitman had aspired to be a doctor, but after a summer spent selling magazines, she switched from math and science to economics. After spending nine years in management positions at organizations such as Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Hasbro (NASDAQ:HAS), Whitman joined the three-year-old auction site. The rest is history.

Whitman grew a company with 30 employees, $4 million in revenue and a simple black-and-white web page into an e-commerce colossus that a decade later boasted 15,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue. Now, the entrepreneurial Whitman gets to build a business again, reviving the fortunes of one of the computer industry’s most iconic brands.

As of this writing, Susan J. Aluise did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.

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