For a decade, William Avery labored in the shadows of Crown Cork & Seal CEO John Connelly. Cautious and debt-averse, Connelly expanded the company gradually. Then in 1990, Avery took over--and was quick to put his imprint on the packaging maker. In the past five years, he has acquired about 20 companies, more than doubling Crown's sales, to $4.5 billion.

On May 22, Avery took his boldest step yet--agreeing to pay $5.2 billion in stock, cash, and assumption of debt for France's CarnaudMetalbox. Avery's deal carries some risks: While it will make Crown No.1 in packaging, with more than $10 billion in sales, it also will lift Crown's total debt to about 60% of capital. And the merger will give Compagnie Generale d'Industrie et de Participations, which owns 32% of CarnaudMetalbox, 20% of Crown and three seats on the combined companies' board.

Avery, a car collector who grew up on Chicago's South Side, is winning kudos on Wall Street for the deal: Crown's stock, trading at 373/4 on Jan. 1, reached 47 1/4 on May 23.

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