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Jean-Martin Folz

The discreet understudy. That's the role Jean-Martin Folz played for two years when he was tapped by the Peugeot family to run their car company, PSA Peugeot Citroen (PEUGY). As heir apparent, Folz gave no clue of his strengths, instead yielding the stage consistently to Peugeot's outspoken CEO, Jacques Calvet.

Now, the understudy is the star. Folz's big act: revving up Peugeot, a company that carmakers on both sides of the Atlantic concluded was takeover bait because it was selling just 2 million cars a year when he took over in 1997. Few believed that Folz, with experience in sugar and aluminum, could save Peugeot from the block.

But it's wrong to underestimate Folz, 54. By ignoring the industry's merger babble and speeding up the pace of new rollouts while cutting costs, he has boosted Peugeot's operating profit fivefold since he replaced Calvet--to $1.5 billion in 2000 on sales of $40 billion. Peugeot is now No. 2 in Europe after Volkswagen (VLKAY). The stock has tripled, and rather than dumping the company, the Peugeots are buying more shares. "We aren't changing strategy," Folz recently declared. Investors--and the Peugeots--seem to like that.

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