When Sophie Vandebroek was appointed head of Xerox Corp's. (XRX ) Canadian research and development operations in 1999, she didn't move to its headquarters in Mississauga, Ontario. Instead, for a year and a half she would get in her car Monday morning at her Penfield (N.Y.) home, drive the 2 hours and 42 minutes it took to get there, and work until 11:00 at night. After a quesadilla dinner and a night's rest at the nearby Holiday Inn, she would work until 4 on Tuesday afternoon, then head home. Wednesdays were spent in Xerox research facilities in Webster, N.Y., near her home. Thursday and Friday was another round trip to Mississauga.
This was no one-time exercise in extreme commuting for Vandebroek, who has lived in the same home for the past 14 years. She has traveled by plane to jobs in Stamford and Hartford, Conn. When she was pregnant with her second child, she worked seven hours away, living in an apartment during the week while her toddler daughter, Elena, was home with her husband, Bart, an engineer.
But Vandebroek would be the first to disabuse anyone of the idea that she's a kind of superwoman. To some degree, she's simply done what she had to do. Ten years ago her husband died of a severe asthma attack while they were camping in the Adirondack Mountains, leaving Vandebroek to raise their three children an ocean away from family in Europe. Since then, she's made her life work not by trying to do it all, but by focusing on what's most important.
An ability to prioritize is part of why Vandebroek, 44, is such a successful executive. On Jan. 1 the 14-year Xerox veteran became chief technology officer, overseeing its 600 researchers and engineers and directing the $760 million plus the copier maker spends each year on R&D. "Sophie is one in a million on a level of skill, knowledge, and intellect," says Bernard S. Meyerson, CTO for IBM Systems and Technology Group and a friend of Vandebroek's since the early 1990s, when they worked together in IBM's Thomas J. Watson Research Center. "But she maintains her modesty."
These days, the commute is a relaxing 12 minutes from her door to Xerox' Webster campus, but Vandebroek's latest job will be a big challenge. Despite a remarkable financial turnaround since its near-bankruptcy in 2001, the Stamford company hasn't been able to get sales momentum. Much to the dismay of Wall Street, revenue has been stuck at $15.7 billion for the past three years despite a flurry of product introductions -- 49 last year alone. Tough rivals such as Canon (CAJ ) and Ricoh (RICOY ) can now more quickly copy any Xerox breakthrough. "It's very tit for tat," says Peter Grant, an analyst with Gartner Inc. (IT ).
Although Xerox and its famous Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have invented everything from photocopying itself to the laser printer and the Ethernet, it has sometimes been criticized as slow to develop important commercial products. But analysts, including Grant, say evidence is growing that recent introductions are winning good market share. It's doing particularly well with color copiers, a product with four times the profit margins of black-and-white copiers.
Vandebroek sees opportunity not only in customized and color printing, but also in a host of emerging technologies that have little to do with the printed word. At a recent Wharton School speech she showcased a voice-activated system that NASA astronauts are using to navigate through manuals while keeping their hands free. Her people are also working on innovations in document services.
As a researcher and lab chief, Vandebroek has a reputation for pushing innovations, including solid ink and specialized toners, into new and higher-margin applications. "One of her strengths is being able to think beyond today," says Ursula M. Burns, president of Business Group Operations for Xerox, "to think if you have something that works today, how can you tweak it? Make it better for a broader field?"
Optimism seems a prerequisite for a job where taking the wrong path can easily cost millions. So is a lot of hard work. Vandebroek's typical workday, when she's in Webster, starts at 6:40 a.m., making breakfast for Elena, 17, Arno, 15, and Jonas, 13. At 7:15 they're on the school bus, and she's working out on her rowing machine while listening to the BBC news on satellite radio. At the office, the day is usually packed with meetings, many with participants piped in from one of the four other research centers she oversees around the world. On a January day, Vandebroek, dressed in a stylish pants suit with a silk scarf and high-heeled suede boots, rushed from one meeting to the next, often stepping aside to clear the e-mail from her BlackBerry or sip from her ever-present 1-liter bottle of lime seltzer. She tries to be home by 6:30 to dine with her kids. Then she spends most nights reading printouts of e-mails she couldn't get to earlier in the day.
A master of efficiency, Vandebroek had to teach herself not to be all business at work. In her early days as a manager she was so focused on getting the job done that she assumed everyone would buy her arguments on logic alone. An executive coach assigned to her as part of Xerox' talent-development program advised her to open up, talk about herself. Vandebroek laughs remembering the surprise of her staff when she opened a Monday morning meeting with a discussion of her weekend ski trip. Soon she was coordinating Thursday evening team outings for chicken wings and beer. The only rule: No talk about work. "It's about the human fabric of the organization," she says, "taking the time to listen to [employees'] concerns."
Still, for years many at Xerox didn't even know she was a widow. After her husband's death, Vandebroek plowed herself into work. In speeches, she often quotes a Chinese proverb that has guided her: "In crisis there is opportunity." Beyond the good that her focus on work has done for her career, Vandebroek sees ways in which her family has grown stronger since the tragedy. They are a close bunch, and she describes her children as "compassionate," a rare trait in any teenager.
Vandebroek was drawn to science early on. Dreams of being an astronaut took root at age seven, when she watched the moon landing on her grandmother's television in Belgium. Today she worries that too few kids in the U.S. understand the importance, value, and excitement of a career like hers. To stoke that interest, she regularly speaks on college campuses and has taken an active role in judging and supporting a national competition for inventors aged 10 to 17. Vandebroek actively involves her children in her scientific world, drafting them to help write speeches she delivers to students. She's particularly proud that her daughter, Elena, who will enter Cornell University next fall, and Elena's best friend are both going into engineering. "I tell them: 'You guys can change the world!"'
By Nanette Byrnes