The Player: Stearns transforms Schick from a follower to a leader

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As Energizer holdings was taking over Schick in February, Michelle Stearns was taking over a project that would reshape the razor category.

Energizer's move to pay $930 million to acquire the Schick-Wilkinson Sword business from Pfizer surprised some. But Ms. Stearns' project-trying to leapfrog far-bigger rival Gillette by introducing the first four-bladed razor-was downright shocking at a company long accustomed to following meekly.

Perhaps equally surprising is that the marketing force behind Quattro is a soft-spoken, cheerful South African mother of two preschool-age boys and relatively new to her job. "I came to this job in February and was kind of thrown into the Quattro launch," said Ms. Stearns. A new job and new owner could have been disruptive, but Ms. Stearns was unruffled.

"People here are the same," she said. "There weren't any layoffs to any extent. Personally, I haven't noticed much difference, which is good. [The takeover] could have derailed a lot of programs, but it didn't. We just persevered."

Rolling with the punches fits Ms. Stearns laid-back and somewhat accidental career climb.

She began with Unilever in Durbin, South Africa, spending two years on such brands as Pond's and Axe before taking two years off to backpack around the world. After returning to Unilever for another two-year stint, she moved to Capetown- seeking a bit more excitement than the sleepier Durbin-and ultimately joined Schick, then owned by Warner-Lambert.

After meeting global colleagues in 1997, she went after a job at headquarters in Milford, Conn., in global product development. She meant to stay only a year, but ended up meeting her future husband, Craig, after five weeks and decided to settle in the U.S. permanently.

In her global role, Ms. Stearns helped redesign packaging, launch Schick's first Web site and develop the Xtreme3 disposable razor that would become Schick's first shot across Gillette's bow in 2001.

`to the point'

But where Xtreme3 ads aimed to be clever or funny, Quattro is more straightforward, in the Gillette mold. "We decided with Quattro, it's really about four blades," Ms. Stearns said, "so let's just be very single-minded and to the point."

That Gillette has responded sternly in the marketplace and courthouse comes as no surprise. "With Xtreme3, it was, `Oh, there goes Schick again with its disposables.' And then with Intuition [launched in April] it was, `OK, a women's product, how big could that be?' With Quattro, that's their core business."

Schick competing in earnest with Gillette is something Ms. Stearns, and the retailers she finds far more powerful in this country than South Africa, both seem to enjoy.

"Let's just say we've energized the category again, and retailers are happy about that," she said. "It's been an extraordinarily exciting time, and a lot of fun."

Fast Facts

Name: Michelle Stearns

Age: 35

Now: Group brand director-men's shaving systems, Schick

Challenge: Successfully lead launch of Quattro and Schick's transformation from follower to challenger

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