This profile is part of the FT’s 2010 Women at the Top ranking of 50 prominent businesswomen around the world.

10. Patricia A. Woertz, 57

Nationality: American

Company: ADM

Sector: Industrials

Location: US

Three-year TSR: -17.7%

No woman runs a bigger company than Patricia Woertz. When she was appointed Archer Daniels Midland’s chief executive in 2006, she was given the reins to what is now a $62bn enterprise by revenue, ranked 27th in the Fortune 500. Management at ADM had previously been home-grown from life-serving male staff. It did not seem the kind of company to appoint an outsider to the top team, let alone a woman.

ADM is one of the world’s largest agricultural processors, creating products used in foods, animal feeds and biofuels, from crops ranging from wheat to cocoa. It also produces vegetable oils, sweeteners, soy ink used to print newspapers, and ethanol – Woertz’s background in the oil industry was important in boosting biofuel capacity.

Based in Illinois, ADM employs 29,000 people in more than 60 countries. In its last fiscal year (to the end of June 2010) it achieved net sales just shy of $62bn, with net profits up 15 per cent on 2009, to $1.93bn.

Woertz’s ambition was fired on school vacations, when her family toured corporate America, visiting a Heinz ketchup plant, a steel mill, the HQ of Gulf Oil and Mellon Bank. She took a BSc in accounting, joined Ernst & Young in Pittsburgh, and three years later moved to one of her clients, Gulf Oil, then embroiled in the Watergate affair, for funnelling money to Richard Nixon’s campaign. Woertz thrived as part of the clean-up team and was transferred to the firm’s audit division.

Roles in refining, marketing and finance followed, and in 1984, when Gulf merged with Chevron, Woertz was put in charge of sell-offs. She impressed again, then moved over to strategic planning. In 1993, she became president of Chevron Canada and by 1996 was president of Chevron International. In 2001, the company merged with Texaco and she became executive vice-president in charge of global refining, marketing, supply and trading – an operation with a market capitalisation of about $100bn.

She took early retirement in spring 2006, before ADM came calling. “I’m fairly certain that ADM didn’t hire me because I’m a woman,” she said, after accepting the job. “I think my background and my performance mean more.”

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