Ilene Gordon, CEO, Corn Products

Ilene Gordon, chairman and CEO of Corn Products International sits between Brad Keywell, co-founder and director of Groupon Inc., left, and Patrick Ryan, chairman and CEO of Ryan Speciality Group at a Chicago CEO breakfast and panel discussion on competitiveness in December. (Chuck Berman/ Chicago Tribune)

Ilene Gordon certainly wasn't the first young girl in the 1960s to balk when told she had to take home economics instead of shop class. It's what she did about it that foreshadowed her path to the latest list of Fortune magazine's 50 most powerful women in business.

"Women were being steered into taking cooking and sewing, and I insisted that I go to shop," she said. "I had to get special permission from the principal."

That was in junior high school. By high school, she was the only girl in her physics class. College was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where men outnumbered women 18 to 1. And when she graduated from MIT's Sloan School of Management, only 19 other women walked down the aisle with her.

Fast-forward 30-plus years, and Gordon, 58, is president, chairman and chief executive of Westchester-based Corn Products International Inc. She talks over midmorning coffee at a Loop restaurant, a convenient location to exploit a fleeting hole in a hectic morning of investor meetings, about her role among corporate gender pioneers the way a veteran ballplayer might talk about learning to hit a curveball as a rookie.

She overcame the challenge. She is proud she overcame it. Now, can we talk about today's game?

"We're really excited about our company," she said, moments after a polite hello. "It's all about Corn Products and how we're growing the company, so we're happy to talk about it."

And why not? The word on the street is that the 105-year-old company is making a comeback. Once languishing, though steadily profitable, as a supplier of sweeteners, with suddenly unpopular high-fructose corn syrup as a mainstay of its product line, the company under Gordon has branched out toward a wider array of food ingredients.

A key step in the diversification strategy was the 2010 purchase of New Jersey-based National Starch, a $1.3 billion-per-year ingredients-maker. That purchase and other growth puts the company at more than $6 billion per year in annual revenue, Gordon said, adding that she expects Corn Products to land firmly within this year's Fortune 500.

Bottom line: Corn Products' stock price has more than doubled from the $23.29 on the day Gordon's hiring was announced to $51.80 Friday. So it's no surprise that she is staking her claim not only as one of Chicago's top female executives but also as one of the region's top business leaders, period.

Consider a recent Executives' Club of Chicago breakfast panel discussion on "Leadership, Chicago-Style: Executive Insights on Competitiveness and Change." It found her onstage between one of the hottest executives in town, Groupon Inc.'s Brad Keywell, and one of the most iconic, Aon founder Patrick Ryan.

Bram Bluestein, her husband of 33 years, said Gordon, formerly CEO of a packaging firm, has moved comfortably into a higher-profile role.

"Everything I see tells me that she has enjoyed learning a new business, getting around the world to meet with Corn Products employees, working with her board and interacting with external stakeholders," said Bluestein, a business management consultant.

"Being a CEO is not an easy job," said Patrick Gallagher, CEO of Arthur J. Gallagher & Co., who brought Gordon onto his company's board of directors several years ago. "She's already completed a sizable acquisition. That's impressive. The stock price reflects that."

David Driscoll, a senior analyst with CitiGroup who has been watching the U.S. food-manufacturing industry for 12 years, said Gordon's performance since taking over Corn Products has been an example of "corporate strategy at its finest."

Since the market crash of 2008, he said, most CEOs have been "very tight with their cash. There were a lot of other companies that didn't take advantage of a lot of opportunities," he said. "She came through when they needed her to come through. This puts her right at the top of any CEOs of any of the companies I deal with."

Gordon took over from former CEO Sam Scott at a pivotal time for Corn Products. The company was all but bought in 2008 by Bunge Ltd., a New York-based global fertilizer and oilseed processor. But when stocks of Bunge and Corn Products tumbled after the planned acquisition was announced, part of an overall stock market plunge, the $4.8 billion deal fell apart.

Gordon took over the company in May 2009, assembled her leadership team and, during the course of several months, put together a plan to diversify and expand globally. The purchase of National Starch filled this bill nicely. She said the often-tricky process of integrating the purchased company into the new organization is going well, and analysts seem to agree.

"Operating earnings have significantly exceeded Fitch's expectations since the acquisition," said Fitch Ratings analyst Judi Rossetti, who gave Corn Products a "stable" rating in a September report.

"In the 12 years I've been covering the food sector, I haven't seen more than two or three acquisitions that were better," Driscoll said. "Frankly, this was a big issue for a very new CEO to do."