An Apparent Heir at Xerox
URSULA M. BURNS doesn't play golf. She doesn't belong to the local country club. Small talk is not her strong suit. And she insists on being home on weekends.
She sounds like an unlikely climber on the Xerox corporate ladder. But up she is going, rung by rung. Since she joined the company two decades ago, Ms. Burns has moved through engineering, manufacturing, various product divisions and a senior vice presidency.
Now she is close to the top. In December, Ms. Burns, 44, was named president of Xerox Business Group Operations. Under her umbrella - or, more appropriately now, circus tent - are the businesses that provide more than 80 percent of Xerox's sales, as well as the engineering, manufacturing and other logistical functions that keep Xerox humming.
Even though Anne M. Mulcahy, Xerox's first female chief executive, is only 50, many people have already pegged Ms. Burns as her successor.
"When you think about who will follow Anne Mulcahy, you can't not consider Ursula Burns," said David A. Nadler, chairman of Mercer Delta Consulting and a longtime consultant to Xerox.
One can almost hear Xerox outsiders asking, Ursula who?
Xerox's crises of the last few years, which included a near bankruptcy (as well as accounting problems that resulted in a $10 million fine), made Ms. Mulcahy a familiar figure as she traveled, trying to reassure employees, customers, shareholders and reporters that Xerox, while ailing, was not dead. In the meantime, Ms. Burns was streamlining things back home.
She wrenched $250 million from Xerox's manufacturing operations by hiring an outside contractor, Flextronics International, in 2001, to make many Xerox products. She masterminded last year's often-contentious union negotiations. She coordinated security procedures before the war in Iraq.
All told, she washed away the red ink and prepared Xerox to go from defense to offense. A month ago, Xerox effectively declared war on Canon and Ricoh, its archrivals in the lucrative market for midspeed digital copiers and printers, by introducing 21 new products and cutting prices on many older ones.
"Ten percent of that was Anne, 90 percent was me," Ms. Burns said during a recent two-hour phone conversation. "Essentially, I'm the Ms. Inside for the operational side of the business."
Hmm. For a self-described Ms. Inside, Ms. Burns has been fielding media calls, talking at investor meetings, visiting customers and otherwise building up a lot of outside credibility. "Ursula is articulate, she has deep knowledge, she's credible - and, yes, we are developing her externally," Ms. Mulcahy said.
Ms. Mulcahy says she has not anointed a successor - yet. For Ms. Burns, that may be just as well; even her fans point to parts of her executive persona that need work.
"It's hard sometimes to persuade her that the right thing to do is not always apparent from the financials," said Gary Bonadonna, director of the Rochester unit of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, which represents Xerox's manufacturing workers.
Others say she has yet to strike a perfect balance of over- and under-managing. `She's quick to help when I ask, and rarely butts in when I don't," said James J. Miller, president of the Xerox Office Group, who has reported to Ms. Burns since January. "But, yes, she sometimes asks for signature authority over things I think should be my decision."
Even Ms. Mulcahy suggests that Ms. Burns "focus more on listening skills, and on not acting too quickly." But, she added, "...every area of weakness is one that she can easily fix."
Ms. Burns has burnished rough edges before. After all, she is not to the executive manner born.
Ursula Burns grew up in "the Projects," a large low-income housing community on Delancey Street in Manhattan. "There were lots of Jewish immigrants, fewer Hispanics and African-Americans, but the common denominator and great equalizer was poverty," she recalled.
MS. BURNS was the middle child of three born to two different fathers. Neither man participated much in the family's life, she said, and her mother took in ironing and ran a day care center from home. Somehow, she was able to send all her children to Catholic schools. "She felt it was the only way to get us good educations, and keep us safe," Ms. Burns said.
She excelled at math and received an engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of New York. Xerox, through the graduate engineering program for minorities, paid for part of her graduate work at Columbia. That program included a summer internship at Xerox, and when she graduated in 1981, she joined Xerox full time.
African-Americans from New York ghettos were not common at Xerox, but Ms. Burns never saw her "otherness" as a liability. "My perspective comes in part from being a New York black lady, in part from being an engineer," she said. "I know that I'm smart and have opinions that are worth being heard."
Others recall that she was never intimidated by superiors. "Even in her 30's, she was a smart, unconventional thinker who'd embrace new ideas even while older executives at the table were rejecting them," said Mr. Nadler, the consultant. Her youthful fearlessness was particularly attractive to Lloyd F. Bean, a Xerox scientist 20 years her senior whom she began dating in 1981. They were married in 1988. They live in Rochester with Malcolm, Mr. Bean's 14-year-old son, and Melissa, their 10-year-old daughter.
Mr. Bean retired two years ago, and Ms. Burns could theoretically spend more time at work. She does not. She is adamant about spending weekends with the family and about working at home only after the children are asleep. She tries to run 35 minutes a day and works out with a personal trainer twice a week - but those activities, too, are done either in the early morning or late at night.
She also fits community service into the schedule, never missing a board meeting of the Rochester Business Alliance. "She always makes it, even if she has to come straight here from the plane," said Sandra A. Parker, the alliance president.
There are a lot of reasons for that. Yes, she feels a sense of duty to the group. And yes, she likes kibitzing with Ms. Parker, a personal friend. But she is also able to talk up Xerox to other executives on the alliance board. "It's a good place to hone my selling skills," Ms. Burns said.
Honing Ms. Outside skills, eh? So she really is preparing to assume the chairman's mantle?
"Come on, it's too soon to think of that," she said. But, she could not resist adding, "I guess I'm a darned good option for a candidate."
1. Describe Burn's approach to leadership
2. Will her approach help her to become Xerox's next CEO? What other skills might she need to learn to develop to become CEO?
1. Ms. Burns approach to leadership includes many concepts that are covered in organizational behavior. First, she believes in a work-life balance. This is shown in her obvious commitment to her family by not working on the weekends or during the evenings before the time her children go to bed. She also believes in networking. That is an essential function of her leadership and she does this at the ...
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