Maria Silvia Bastos Marques is leading Brazilian steel giant CSN through a dramatic restructuring.

WHEN MARIA SILVIA BASTOS MARQUES BECAME finance secretary of Rio de Janeiro in 1993, the city was a basket case. By cutting pork-barrel programs, renegotiating service contracts and waging war with tax evaders, she boosted the city's reserves from US$5 million to $1.2 billion by 1996, earning the epithet, "the Billion-Dollar Woman' Finance Minister Pedro Malan referred to her as a "force of nature" and Time magazine picked her as the only woman among 12 international "Movers and Shakers" who would most shape the global economy in 1997.

Since then, Bastos Marques has had an even bigger challenge on her hands; leading the turnaround of Companhia Siderurgica Nacional (CSN), Brazil's largest steel mill and one of its largest companies. From the looks of it, she's succeeding.

CSN was founded in 1941 and quickly grew through the late 1970s into Brazil's most important symbol of national industrial power. But it also became a bloated, inefficient arm of the Brazilian government. The gravy train ended in 1989, when incoming President Fernando Color de Mello refused to grant CSN further subsidies. It was eventually sold in April 1993 to a group of private Brazilian industrial companies led by Benjamin Steinbruch of textile firm Grupo Vicunha for $1.5 billion.

Steinbruch kicked in an ambitious restructuring program that focused on modernizing the company's dilapidated equipment to produce a better quality, higher-value mix of products, earmarking an investment of $1.6 billion through 2000. Impressed with what Bastos Marques had accomplished with the city, he brought in the 42-year-old economist in May 1996 to make the plan go.

Steel core. Bastos Marques took over as head of CSN's corporate center, a managerial hub Steinbruch created to centralize the company's operations and oversee its diverse assets. She quickly went to work. Bastos Marques and her team slashed CSN's bloated work force by 18% to 9,000 and raised $1.1 billion in financing to invest in the state-of-the-art equipment that would eliminate production bottlenecks, thus improving productivity. As a result, CSN's gross margins swelled from 25% in 1996 to 38% last year, allowing the company to post record net profits of $360 million, up 65% over 1996.

Now comes the hard part. Over the last few years, CSN has been on a diversification binge, buying up interests in everything from cement...

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