P&G'S LAFLEY SEEN ON PATH TO TOP JOB: EXECUTIVE RETURNS TO HEADQUARTERS TO OVERSEE N. AMERICA OPERATIONS

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At Procter & Gamble Co., some senior executives are proteges of chairman-CEO and charismatic nice guy John Pepper. Others are proteges of the blunter, hard-driving President Durk Jager.

Alan G. Lafley, known as A.G., is the rare exception who's both. And after Messrs. Pepper, 59, and Jager, 54, have had their turn at P&G's top job, the conventional thinking among many P&G watchers goes that Mr. Lafley, 51, will be next.

BACK TO CINCINNATI

The conventional thinking got a boost last week when P&G announced it is bringing Mr. Lafley back to Cincinnati headquarters from his post of exec VP and president-Asia to take that same title for North America, effective Oct. 1.

The move is part of a realignment prompted by the retirement of Harald Einsmann, who heads P&G's European business as exec VP and president-Europe, Middle East and Africa. In the realignment, Wolfgang C. Berndt vacates the North American position to head the Asian operation.

Past associates describe Mr. Lafley as a genuinely warm person -- someone who would kick back and have a few beers with the assistant brand managers long after he had moved up the corporate ladder -- but also a streamliner in the Jager mold.

`MORE LIKE DURK'

"Underneath it all, [Mr. Lafley] is probably a lot more like Durk," said one former colleague. "But he acts more like John."

"When I think of A.G., I think of a highly professional and highly empathetic manager," said Vandy Van Wagener, former VP-general manager of P&G's cosmetics and skincare business in Asia under Mr. Lafley, and now CEO of InfoBeat, an e-mail subscription service. "When I was contemplating changing my own goals and direction, A.G. spent [six] months with me sorting them out."

Mr. Lafley's performance following the 1994 earthquake in Kobe, Japan, was little short of heroic. As thousands fled the ravaged city, Mr. Lafley, who was traveling at the time, struggled to get back, then quickly secured promises from top P&G management to rebuild in Japan and care for 1,000 displaced P&G families.

"We had something akin to a blank check," said a former P&G Asian executive. "That was where you saw the finest of A.G."

STATIONED IN JAPAN

The Asian assignment marked a return for Mr. Lafley, who was stationed in Japan from 1970-75 in the Navy. He earned a Harvard MBA upon discharge, and in 1977, joined P&G as a 30-year-old assistant brand manager among peers in their 20s.

At first, his career moved only at the pace of the average, successful P&G manager. The turning point came in 1983 with Mr. Lafley's appointment as associate advertising manager in the laundry division.

"Previous to A.G., there was a perception that anything as big as Tide couldn't be a growth engine," a former P&G manager said. "And he came and totally reversed that, saying only something as big as Tide can grow like crazy."

Mr. Lafley got some of the company's most promising junior executives to work on Tide, helped update the brand's advertising "from the 1950s to the 1980s" and oversaw the launch of liquid Tide, the former P&G manager said.

A BIGGER GAMBLE

As VP-laundry and cleaning products, Mr. Lafley took a bigger gamble, launching ultraconcentrated versions of Tide and other P&G detergents based on inconclusive data from similar moves in Europe and Japan. The ultras worked, solidifying P&G's hold on the laundry category.

Though an excellent organizer and streamliner, Mr. Lafley is not an idea man, said another former P&G executive.

"He's smart enough and experienced enough to recognize good product ideas and keep good people around him," this former P&G executive said. "By definition, in the role he's in in North America, he will be surrounded by those kinds of people."

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