Not long after arriving in Toronto, Michele J. Hooper--the new head of Baxter International Inc.'s Canadian unit--was invited to join the Young President's Organization. During her welcome dinner, a member of this predominantly white, male club joked that it was good Hooper was a woman and even better that she was black--but it would have been best of all if she were disabled, too. Tense silence. Then, Hooper "just laughed it off," recalls Bruce R. Ingram, the club's chairman. "She put everyone at ease."
Naturally. Hooper has had plenty of experience dealing with the loaded issues of race and gender. Colleagues voiced doubts about her promotion in 1988: The company's largest international division, a $300 million, 1,500-employee operation, was going to a person with little line-management experience. "One of the first questions I got was whether I was making the decisions or whether someone else was," Hooper recalls. "The answer was that I made them."
According to Baxter, a hospital-supply company, Hooper boosted the unit's net operating margins by 4 percentage points. Her next step might have been to run a large U.S. division. Instead, she took on a trickier assignment: president of the alternate-site international unit, which includes overseas operations for Caremark, Baxter's fast-growing home health care subsidiary. Her job is to build a tiny $25 million business into a full-fledged European operation. That means creating a market in countries that still handle such care in hospitals.
A RISK-TAKER. Hooper's boss, Caremark CEO Charles H. Blanchard, recognizes that "starting a new business is a risky thing. But then, she's a risk-taker." A coal miner's daughter from hardscrabble Uniontown, Pa., she was the first in her family to go to college. In 1976, she joined Baxter as a senior financial analyst and rose through a series of corporate finance jobs. Heading the Canadian unit taught her "that I can handle more stress and uncertainty than I originally thought."
In her new job, she'll have plenty of both. A grueling schedule takes her to Amsterdam one week and Mexico City the next. Her husband, Lemuel Seabrook III, has transferred from Harris Bankcorp to the Bank of Montreal and back to Harris to accommodate Hooper's moves. For this power couple, love means keeping your suitcases packed.