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When she took over Colgate-Palmolive Co.’s international legal division in 1997, the first thing Michele Coleman Mayes learned was that an Ecuadoran court had just leveled a $53 million judgment against the personal care giant for terminating a local distributor’s contract. Mayes stopped that financial disaster cold. Sure, she barely even knew where Ecuador was, she remembers, laughing. But that didn’t stop her. With the case pending before Ecuador’s Supreme Court, Mayes realized that governmental pressure was essential. A resolutely nonpolitical company, Colgate had no Washington, D.C., office. So Mayes attacked the problem from scratch, drafting a trade complaint and convincing 26 U.S. agencies to sign on. Within six months, she had a settlement — for what she describes as a fraction of the initial judgment. It was a brilliant alternative to years-long litigation, says Bruce Aitken, of Washington, D.C.’s Aitken Irvin Berlin & Vroom�n, which worked on the case. “This was the legal equivalent of a grand slam.” The story is classic Mayes, according to friends and colleagues. It’s just like her to handle an obstacle by blazing an alternative route around it. Like most of the attorneys on the Shortlist, Mayes attended a top law school — the University of Michigan. But unlike others on the roster, she was the first in her family to go to college. Others on the list got their litigation chops with a few years in U.S. Attorneys’ Offices; Mayes stayed for seven years and ended up heading the Detroit office’s civil division. In 1982, she went corporate, jumping to Burroughs Corp. (later Unisys), where she handled bet-the-company cases for another nine years, rising to vice president. In 1992, Mayes, now 53, took yet another leap, accepting former Unisys boss Andrew Hendry’s offer to become Colgate-Palmolive’s division GC for North America. The new job meant moving from litigation to corporate, and from high-tech to consumer products. She now heads legal operations, overseeing 17 lawyers. One constant among all those changes has been Mayes’ direct manner and bold style. Her pantsuits, close-cropped hair and dramatic jewelry have dumbfounded foreign executives and stopped traffic in India and China, she says. But, she adds, laughing again, “People do get over it.”

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