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

Avon's ex-president's odd leap to CEO

November 3, 2009: 3:44 PM ET

by Patricia Sellers

2005_smith_liz new small

Photo courtesy of Avon

Liz Smith, who was on track to succeed Andrea Jung as CEO of Avon Products (AVP), is moving to a new company and a new industry. Again.

The onetime star exec at Kraft (KFT), who made an unlikely leap from food to cosmetics in 2004, is the newly named chief executive of OSI, a chain of casual-dining eateries.

"What?!!" is a question that Smith admits she's been asked often throughout her career. She says she follows her own guideline: "Be open to opportunity."

There's plenty of opportunity--and risk--at OSI, which you may not have heard of but is a giant in the casual-dining category. With 2008 revenues of $4 billion, OSI operates chains such as Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill, Roy's, and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and Wine Bar. Good brands, as restaurant brands go--and as Bain Capital and Catterton Partners thought when they acquired the company for $3.2 billion in 2007. But the global recession brutalized the business, which operates across the U.S. and in 20 other countries. OSI lost $739.4 million last year, and it's been suffering serious declines in same-store sales.

Which may be ideal for Smith, since she adores companies that are ripe for overhaul. "It's really always been in my DNA," she told my colleague Jessica Shambora in September, on the day she announced her departure from Avon.

Smith's exit from Avon shocked many people, since she was crucial to the cosmetic giant's turnaround, well-liked across the company, and widely viewed as Jung's eventual successor. But "eventual" was looking to be too long from now. While Smith, who is No. 29 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women in Business list, is just 46 years old and has plenty of runway ahead, she lost patience. That's understandable since Jung, who was named Avon's CEO at age 41 a decade ago, has no plans to retire.

So now, Smith--who began her career at Morgan Stanley (MS) and then, as a Stanford MBA student, "wanted to start the next Microsoft or H-P"--is off in yet another new direction. Geographically, this time it is Manhattan to Tampa, Florida, where OSI is based. Smith plans to commute initially and then relocate with her husband and two young sons.

And though retail isn't entirely new to Smith--she's on the board of Staples (SPLS)--she'll be testing herself against her own measure of leadership. "Nothing is more important than a nimble, agile leader who is comfortable with ambiguity," she told me a few months ago.

"We have to be comfortable figuring it out as we go along," Smith added. Definitely, she's living her philosophy.

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