Canada's Most Powerful Babe Turns To Politics
(FORTUNE Magazine) – As resumes go, this one doesn't exactly leap out as the logical fit for the leader of a major political party in the world's eighth-largest economy: college dropout, no political experience, twice-divorced, unilingual, and only 37 years old. But then again, Belinda Stronach has had plenty of practice defending herself against skeptics. The former chief executive of Magna International was once again thrust into that very position when she announced in late January that she was leaving her post at the $14 billion auto-parts giant and plunging headfirst into the leadership contest for the Conservative Party of Canada.
The move sparked a veritable media frenzy north of the border--and for good reason. For starters, Stronach has carved out a name for herself on the international business stage; during her tenure at Magna the company achieved record sales and the stock price doubled. She was also the only woman CEO of a FORTUNE Global 500 company based outside the U.S. That landed Stronach the No. 2 position on FORTUNE's list of the 50 Most Powerful Women in international business in both 2002 and 2003.
But even more intriguing is Stronach the person. She's the daughter of charismatic Magna founder Frank Stronach, who, ironically, ran as a candidate for the federal Liberal Party back in 1988. After failing in his bid to get elected, the older Stronach returned to the helm of Magna, only to narrowly avert financial disaster a couple of years later when the company came dangerously close to bankruptcy.
Belinda also has the bizarre distinction of having taken over the top job at the company from her first husband, who still works there. Stronach's second marriage was to four-time Olympic champion speed skater Johan Olav Koss. She's also become friends with--and denied rumors of a romantic liaison with--Bill Clinton.
The Canadian media have feasted on the arrival of an energetic young woman to the political scene. Since her campaign kickoff, Canadian newspapers have referred to her as "hot" and discussed her "babe factor"--one even characterized her campaign as "Paris Hilton starring in The Simple Political Life."
Of course, all this attention is being welcomed by the Conservative Party, which, until Stronach's entrance into the leadership race, was languishing. As for her chances of actually winning the contest, most onlookers aren't giving her very good odds: With the March convention only a few weeks away, she has little time to make up ground against her more experienced opponents, former Canadian Alliance Party leader Stephen Harper and former Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement. "There's just no way that she can win," contends Conrad Winn, president of Toronto-based polling firm Compas. "But she's doing the Conservative Party a huge favor. And if her objective is to position herself as national political figure, I think her chances are excellent."
Still, Stronach has her critics--she's always had to battle the perception that for all the accolades, she was never really calling the shots at Magna. Following the announcement that dad Frank would take over Belinda's role, Scotia Capital analyst David Tyerman wrote, "We expect 'business as usual' at Magna." Belinda spent almost all of her years at Magna in softer roles, like human resources, corporate affairs, and philanthropic programs. During her time at the helm she was surrounded by a cadre of powerful divisional executives and her father's most trusted advisors. And even after she landed the CEO gig, dad Frank continued to haul in some $33 million a year in cash "consulting fees," about $30 million more than the younger Stronach received for her efforts. All of which led many industry watchers to wonder how superficial Belinda's role at Magna was. Come to think of it, a career in politics may just be a perfect fit for Canada's newest media celebrity. --Janice Revell