How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

Nike's big catch in retail

July 7, 2009: 3:45 PM ET

The ideal career path may be: reaching the top of the corporate world, then taking time off for family when your kids need you most, and then jumping back into a primo job at a top-tier global company.

Impossible in this dreadful economy? Here's someone who's done it. Remember Jeanne Jackson? At Gap (GPS) in the 90s, she built Banana Republic and then went to help Wal-Mart (WMT) take from start-up stage. But after leaving Wal-Mart seven years ago, Jackson was out of the big game, except for board gigs at McDonald's (MCD), Nordstrom (JWN), and Nike (NKE).

Jeanne Jackson

She's back. Actually, I follow these Most Powerful Women (and Jackson was one, on our annual list a decade ago), but the announcement four months ago that she landed at Nike--as President, Direct to Consumer, reporting to the CEO--was so low-key that I'd missed it. A few days ago, I spotted Jackson's name and Nike title on the participant list for our upcoming Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. I popped her an email. We talked yesterday.

"I made a commitment to my family," Jackson, 57, told me, explaining why she had dropped out for so long. Since 2001, when she joined the Nike board, Jackson actually had talked on and off with chairman Phil Knight and CEO Mark Parker about joining the company. But not until this year, when her son graduated from high school and her daughter accepted an internship in London, at Burberry, did she decide to jump.

She didn't think the jump would be to Nike first thing. "I thought I'd do something related to private equity," says Jackson, who has been quietly running her own private equity/consulting business, MSP Capital, out of Newport Beach, California for the past several years. She expected one of the companies she backed "would speak to me." But nothing did. (Along with "some spectacular failures," she says, she scored a couple of hits, including Pure Digital, which sells the Flip camera and recently was acquired by Cisco.)

As the global economy tanked, she felt ever more drawn to the thing that she has focused on throughout her career: strong brands. Says Jackson, who was at Disney (DIS) and Victoria's Secret early on: "In this economy, consumers default to strong brands." Now, in this new role that Nike CEO Parker created for her, she oversees the company's global retail holdings. That includes some 3,500 franchised Nike stores, more than 600 wholly-owned Nike and Cole Haan stores, and five e-commerce sites. Some $3 billion in revenues annually travels through these "direct to consumer" channels.

And despite the global meltdown, Nike is performing well. Revenues reached $19.2 billion in the year ended May 31. Profits fell 21% after five years of 20%+ annual growth, but investors have stayed with the stock: It's up nearly 40% in five years, while the S&P has dropped 20%. The world's largest athletic shoe and apparel marketer, Nike has smartly reduced spending and layers of management, while selectively adding key talent like Jackson.

Of course, she's contending with the retail slowdown--Nike too has cut new-store expansion. But in some ways, Jackson is returning to the sort of thing she did inside Gap and Wal-Mart: playing entrepreneur inside a corporation. Last week, she opened the first Hurley/Converse/Nike store, in Orange County, California. The Hurley brand is for surfers and skateboarders and other cool kids. Converse, she says, has particularly broad appeal--from high school kids to musicians to "my mother-in-law, who is 87 years old and wears Converse."

The family dynamic--usually a complication when executives, especially women, return to big jobs--is alright for Jackson. At least until her son heads off to SMU this fall, she's commuting from California to Oregon, where Nike is based. Husband Doug, a retired airline pilot, is flexible and always has been. "I could take any job and he would just relocate," Jackson says. (He has his own passion: cars. He owns the Batmobile--one of four built in 1966 for Batman on TV.)

Jackson, meanwhile, has simplified her business extracurriculars. She quit the boards of Nordstrom and Harrah's Entertainment, as well as Nike. The one board she's staying on: McDonald's. After all, you can never get enough lessons in smart retailing.PATTIE signature

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