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In 1979, long before China was chic, Gillette Co.'s Michael C. Hawley flew into Shanghai. Hawley, then the Sydney-based head of Asia-Pacific operations, was on a mission to make Gillette one of the first Western companies to crack the Chinese market.

But his search for a joint venture to make razor blades was increasingly looking like Mission: Impossible. ''We were flying blind,'' recalls Hawley. China didn't even have a law for joint ventures as yet. Worse, while Shanghai, home to China's largest razor-blade manufacturer was the natural site, the city was still under the sway of the Gang of Four.

Many American executives would have given up. But Hawley, an international veteran who had already broken ground in tough terrain from Teheran to Bogota, persevered. Eventually, he struck a deal in the northern city of Shenyang. It took over two dozen trips and nearly four years before the Shenyang Daily Use Metals Products Co., as Gillette's joint venture was called, began production. It was just a sliver of the market. But the payoff came in 1992 when Gillette beat the competition to buy 70% of the Shanghai operation, now the largest blade plant in Asia. As a result, Gillette controls over 80% of China's $51 million razor-blade market.

That achievement speaks volumes about why Hawley is being groomed as Gillette's next CEO. Foreign markets offer far more growth than the mature U.S., and Gillette is building an internationally seasoned management team to seize the opportunities.

TASKMASTER. While many American CEOs have done a brief stint abroad, Hawley, 59, built his career overseas. Although he joined Gillette in 1961 as an assistant to the controller in the Boston headquarters, by 1966 he was running Gillette's small import-export operation in Hong Kong. Promotions followed over the next two decades, taking him to five continents with a wife and three children in tow. Today, ''he's the most skilled international manager in the company,'' says Chief Executive Alfred M. Zeien.

Hawley still spends much of his time traveling and garnering information--for example, on how Duracell batteries are moving in the open-air markets that ring Russian cities. Hawley isn't shy about shouting out overseas managers' errors: ''Your name is right there, right across that really crappy display.''

His years abroad have made Hawley opposed to any hint of a nationalistic approach to management. ''I don't think you can be a global company and say you have to have Americans running it,'' he says. Two of Gillette's four executive vice-presidents, the traditional stepping-stone to the top, are Europeans. In some countries, Gillette management is beginning to rival the U.N. Its business in the former Soviet Union, for instance, is headed by Albert Richard, a Frenchman backed up by an Egyptian controller, an English sales director, and officers from Pakistan and Ireland.

But with Al Zeien still firmly at the helm, even insiders are uncertain how Hawley will evolve as CEO. ''He will have a different style'' than Zeien, predicts Jacques Legarde, an executive vice-president who has worked with both men for years. ''But I don't think we can see what his full style is until he is there.'' Zeien is known as a business theorist whose greatest contribution has been conceptualizing and then communicating Gillette's mission. The burly Hawley is more comfortable tackling nuts-and-bolts challenges. ''He's a man who knows how to get things done,'' says Zeien. Gillette's board is betting that he is just the choice to see that the blueprint developed by Zeien is executed.

By William C. Symonds in Boston

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Updated Jan. 8, 1998 by bwwebmaster
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