Monday, Apr. 26, 2004

Belinda Stronach

What would make anyone quit a job as chief executive of a $15 billion company, turning her back on a career that has earned a spot on Fortune's list of the world's "most powerful businesswomen"? For Canada's Belinda Stronach, the answer was a no-brainer: it was the chance to become her country's Prime Minister. Veteran politicians sneered when Stronach, president and CEO of Magna International, North America's fifth largest auto-parts company, entered the race this year to become leader of Canada's newly renovated Conservative Party. The battle wasn't pretty. Near the end of the 57-day campaign, a prankster handed the glamorous but politically inexperienced Stronach a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, "Better than Viagra." Stronach soldiered through to a respectable second-place finish—and made clear that a new Canadian star was on the horizon.

Stronach, 37, has already cut a swath among the world's corporate élites. Magna, founded by her Austrian immigrant father Frank in a rural Ontario tool-and-die shop, has offices in 22 countries and a global workforce of 75,000. But Stronach's philanthropic interests, which include running a national education foundation, took her beyond a focus on the bottom line. As she campaigned across Canada's vast distances this winter, some admirers were already comparing her to the young Margaret Thatcher. "She generated significantly more glamour than I could bring," conceded Stephen Harper, 45, the victor in the leadership vote. Stronach is now expected to run for (and win) a seat in Canada's Parliament in national elections expected by this summer. If the Conservatives triumph, she's rumored to be a future Minister of Industry or Trade. Few find it easy to make the transition from business to politics. Fewer have made money betting against Belinda Stronach.