ROBERT POLET Trading Up Luxury-goods maker Gucci shocked the fashion world when it picked Polet, 48, as its new CEO, since the Dutchman had spent his career at Unilever, a purveyor of low-brow brands such as Lever 2000 soap and Birds Eye peas. Polet has big, fancy shoes to fill at Gucci. Outgoing CEO Domenico De Sole is credited, along with designer Tom Ford, with reviving the empire. But Polet is a brand builder too. In his last post as president of Unilever's $7.8 billion frozen-foods division, he raised profit margins 70% in a little more than three years.
CHRISTOPH FRANZ High Flyer Swiss International Air Lines, successor to the defunct Swissair, has been flying low since it took off in 2002. The unprofitable carrier is seeking to get lift from its new CEO, Franz, 44, who most recently worked at the German railway Deutsche Bahn. But it was Franz's track record at Lufthansa that put him in the Swiss pilot's seat. In the early 1990s, Franz helped then CEO Jurgen Weber free the German carrier from high labor costs and years of losses. Lufthansa tried and failed to grab Swiss late last year.
CLAIRE BABROWSKI Hamburger Helper Don't tell Babrowski, 46, that burger flipping is a dead end. She rose from dishwasher to become one of the execs responsible for McDonald's turnaround. She was running 7,500 restaurants in Asia and the Middle East when she was tapped for chief restaurant operations officer, covering everything from equipment to real estate worldwide. With the company's COO post empty since Charlie Bell took over as CEO, following Jim Cantalupo's untimely death, Babrowski's corporate climb may still have a rung or two to go.
JONATHAN SCHWARTZ Software Smarty Sun Microsystems is a company in deep shadow. The network computer maker has seen sales drop for 12 straight quarters and recently announced 3,300 layoffs. Trying to brighten that darkness is the ponytailed Schwartz, 38, the firm's new COO. He most recently ran Sun's software division, where he headed new strategies for deploying Sun's Java platform. One ongoing initiative: a push into markets such as China and India, where Microsoft doesn't have a stranglehold and Sun can more easily sell its systems for desktops and devices.