Happily retired and in full R&R mode, Susan Cameron was the last person anyone imagined would go back to work and lead a colossal acquisition. After seven years at the helm of the second-largest U.S. tobacco company, Reynolds American RAI 0.32% , Cameron had moved on to a new life, a new husband, and even a new name. (She had been Susan Ivey before taking husband Russell’s surname.)
But one day last October she answered her phone and found an old colleague on the line. It was Tom Wajnert, Reynolds’s chairman of the board. “We’re about to go through some interesting times,” Wajnert (pronounced WY-nert) said.
“Oh, Tom, I’m having a great time in retirement,” Cameron replied. “Russell and I are traveling, seeing the kids, and we’re fully deployed.” Cameron had quit for good, she thought.
But like a smoker who forgoes a healthier life for a short-term fix, she caved in to temptation. After rejoining Reynolds’s board of directors in January, Cameron, 55, returned to the CEO position on May 1. She replaced her successor, Daan Delen, who had spent more than a year trying to buy Lorillard LO -0.06% , the No. 3 U.S. cigarette manufacturer, and failed to get the job done.
In mid-July, 10 weeks after her return, Reynolds announced its plan to buy Lorillard for $27.4 billion. The deal is history-making, and not just for its size: It is the largest acquisition ever led by a female CEO. It’s also an extraordinarily complex transaction: Britain’s British American Tobacco (BAT), which owns 42% of Reynolds, is providing $4.7 billion in financing, and U.K.-based Imperial Tobacco—also led by a female CEO, Alison Cooper—is acquiring three famous Reynolds brands: Winston, Salem, and Kool. The sale of those brands is intended to help get the Lorillard deal approved by antitrust authorities.
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, left, and Reynolds American Inc. CEO Susan Cameron answer questions at a press conference, Friday, May 23, 2014, at Reynolds American's Tobaccoville, N.C., plant where the company announced 200 new jobs producing their Vuse brand electronic cigarette. (AP Photo/Winston-Salem Journal, Walt Unks).
Sitting in her office in Winston-Salem, N.C. (yes, Reynolds is selling its hometown’s namesake brands to the Brits), Cameron seems nothing like other tobacco bosses. Back in 2001, when she became CEO of Brown & Williamson, BAT’s U.S. division, she was the first woman to lead a major cigarette business; in 2004, when Reynolds and B&W combined, she was tapped to take charge.
She’s also nothing like those Big Tobacco CEOs who 20 years ago testified before Congress about the hazards of smoking and came across as chief executive deniers. “Smoking harms people,” says Cameron, articulating the word as she draws on a Vuse, Reynolds’s new electronic cigarette. Today’s tobacco chiefs are more candid about the dangers of the products they sell, but, says Wajnert, “Susan has been more open and aggressive than most people in the industry.” He adds, “We all feel the same way. Cigarettes are deadly. They kill people. But at the same time, it’s a legal product.”
Cameron is no fool about her own health. She kicked her habit of smoking conventional cigarettes a decade ago, and then she switched to a Reynolds product called Eclipse, which heats tobacco without burning. Now she is a champion of “vaping”—a term that has not yet made it into Merriam-Webster but means “inhaling with a vaporizer.” It is what people do with those battery-operated e-cigarettes, like Vuse, that heat nicotine-laced liquid into vapor. Without toxic tobacco or tar, they are still addictive and not necessarily safe—conflicting research comes out daily. Yet e-cigarettes have taken the market by storm and already add up to a $2.5 billion industry. As she rolls out Vuse nationally this year, Cameron wants Reynolds to become, she says, “the vaper authority.”Read the rest of the article on Fortune