Rising Star: Ursula Burns, Xerox
Meet Corporate America's next generation of leaders.
By Betsy Morris, FORTUNE senior writer

(FORTUNE Magazine) - Here's what you need to know about Ursula Burns. As Xerox was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in early 2001, Burns was in charge of one of the crucial parts of the company's turnaround -- holding contract talks with its 2,000 unionized workers in Rochester, N.Y. -- even as she was exploring the outsourcing of their jobs.

"Most people would have run for the hills," says CEO Anne Mulcahy. But Burns wouldn't take a pass, even when she had the chance. She negotiated the deal in her living room, where she was recovering from an emergency hysterectomy.

Ursula Burns, Xerox
Ursula Burns, Xerox

Now Burns, 47, is the president of Business Group Operations, in charge of engineering, product development, manufacturing, the supply chain, global purchasing, and R&D. Whew. That's basically everything except sales and service at the $15.7 billion company.

The job puts her in the hot seat once again: This time cracking what Mulcahy calls "the hardest part of the equation for us" --achieving a revenue growth rate of 5 percent. "We think we execute fairly well, but we aren't excellent," Burns says.

As you can tell, Burns's style is direct; she doesn't spin and there's no spinning her. "If there was a moose in the room, Ursula would be the person to put it on the table," says Quincy Allen, a VP of product development. Says Mulcahy: "She is the ultimate straight-shooter."

She is also personable. Everybody who works with her knows that son Malcolm, 17, is now driving, and daughter Melissa, 13, is adept at drawing. They know about her extraordinary past -- growing up in a tenement house in Manhattan, where her mother, Olga, ironed shirts and "did whatever the hell she needed to keep us all going," says Burns.

After earning a master's degree in engineering from Columbia, she joined Xerox (Research) as a summer intern in 1980. She worked her way through engineering and product development and then up the ladder to senior VP in 2000, just in time to play a big role in helping Mulcahy keep Xerox from going off a cliff.

Now she is leading Xerox's drive into color printing, which grew 15 percent last year and contributes almost a third of revenue. She has nearly completed the company's transition to digital printing.

Meanwhile. the headhunters are eyeing her, but she plans to stay at Xerox for "as long as they'll have me."

What about becoming a CEO? "I can't let myself get confused by tomorrow," she says. As her mother taught her, "If I keep focused on what I need to do today, the future will take care of itself." Top of page

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