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When asbestos litigation shattered Owens Corning in October 2000, it was general counsel Maura Abeln Smith who picked up the pieces. As the Toledo, Ohio’s company’s top legal gun since 1997, she had spent the previous three years sheltering the company from a cavalcade of class action suits that stemmed from carcinogenic fibers made in connection with its products. When hardball tactics with plaintiffs failed, Smith spearheaded an innovative national settlement plan, the first among asbestos defendants. But when the company’s bankruptcy became imminent, two years ago, Smith again stepped up to the plate, tackling dual roles as GC and chief restructuring officer in an effort to secure the $6 billion business’s future. Now in the second phase of bankruptcy, Owens Corning hopes to emerge from Chapter 11 by mid-decade. Despite the company’s financial woes, Smith is well rewarded for her demanding duties. The highest-ranking woman on our GC compensation survey at No. 16, Smith took home $500,000 in salary and $727,000 in a bonus last year, for a total payout of $1,227,000. Smith’s climb to the top began in college, where she was one of the first women to receive a Rhodes scholarship, in 1977. She launched her law career at Miami’s Steel Hector & Davis before defecting to Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie to launch their Miami office, in 1987. Yet the greatest training ground for Abeln’s current gig was at the General Electric Co., where she was a member of the fabled in-house team assembled by GC Benjamin Heineman Jr. (No. 1 on our survey). As GC of subsidiary GE Plastics in the mid-1990s, Smith dug her heels into the male-dominated business of building materials and has never let go. Yet for all her success, there’s one job the thrice-divorced mother of two still aspires to: CEO. She’s likely to get her wish some day. As skillful as she is at building companies, she’s also terrific at breaking down barriers.

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