When Business Week did a profile of Mattel Inc. Chief Executive Jill Barad last year, she was shown on the cover wearing a baby-pink suit and tie.

Not many CEOs of Fortune 500 companies could get away with that.

For that matter, there aren't many CEOs who could brush aside quarterly earnings projected to be a whopping 55 percent less than anticipated.

As Mattel's board was meeting in New York last week to consider the latest financial setback one that surprised many analysts and institutional investors attention focused squarely on the performance of Barad, who has been CEO for almost three years.

Even with rumors of her possible dismissal circulating around Wall Street, Barad has two things in her favor: She is one of only three women to head a Fortune 500 company (the others are Marion Sandler at Golden West Financial Corp. and Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard Co.), and she will be forever linked to the resurrection of Barbie, Mattel's top-selling toy.

That might not be enough for her to hold on, but it certainly will make it a tough call for Mattel's board.

"How it all plays out going forward remains to be seen, but this is anything but a cold, black-and-white issue," said David Leibowitz, a managing director at Burnham Securities in New York. "There appear to be no shortage of company critics out there, any number of whom seem to be making it almost a personal vendetta to effect changes in the management team. Certainly the next 12 months will be anything but dull in El Segundo."

Through a company spokesman, Barad, 48, declined a request for an interview. Asked how Barad is enduring the troubles at Mattel, company spokesman Glenn Bozarth said he "can't really characterize it."

Mattel's final earnings figures will be announced during a conference call on Oct. 21, an event that will be "one of the most listened-to conference calls the company has had in a while," Leibowitz said.

Upon the company's announcement of the earnings shortfall the result of losses of between $50 million and $100 million at Mattel's Learning Co. educational software division the stock tumbled by 30 percent.

As of close on Oct. 7, Mattel shares were trading at $12.13, down from $28 when Barad was promoted to the company's top spot.

This summer, Fortune declared Barad to be one of five American CEOs who are "in denial" about the deteriorating finances of their companies. The criteria used by the magazine included not being able to accurately forecast financial performance two years in advance and an exodus of top executives from the company.

But as a woman CEO, any discussion of managerial performance becomes tricky especially for someone as strong-willed as Barad.

"Women, I think, are few and far between in the executive suite, so obviously it's going to bring a kind of tension (at Mattel)," said Kathleen Brown, co-manager of private banking in California for Bank of America. "But I think any board exercising their fiduciary duty is going to look at the facts."

Barad's leadership technique, which manages to be highly feminine and highly aggressive at the same time, has become the stuff of legend. She is known as a flamboyant executive, a former model and cosmetics saleswoman who can work a crowd and signs off by saying "I love you all" during video presentations to employees.

In 1997, Barad earned $34.6 million (based on the exercise of stock options) and was the second highest-paid executive in Los Angeles. By 1998, her annual pay was $4.6 million, reflecting a smaller incentive payout.

"She's certainly done many things right in her career or she wouldn't be where she is now," said Margaret Whitfield, an analyst at Tucker Anthony in New York. "She's different from the traditional buttoned-down individual that becomes a CEO. She has a style and a flair that people liked when things were good."

Barad was essential to the rebirth of Barbie, Mattel's biggest moneymaker. She started in 1981 as a product manager, where her savvy and abrasive nature quickly got noticed. In the mid-1980s, she was given the assignment of creating different roles for Barbie: beach Barbie, party-girl Barbie, executive Barbie. Sales of the doll skyrocketed.

"Jill has a track record of success under very trying circumstances," Leibowitz said. "Certainly, building the Barbie franchise the way she did was one of the best performances that we have seen in the toy industry in the last four decades."

In recent years, Barbie sales have comprised up to 30 percent of Mattel's $4.8 billion in revenues.

"I think in a way, Jill Barad is synonymous with Mattel to the extent that Michael Eisner is with Disney," said attorney Lisa Specht, a friend of Barad's. "It is a mistake to condemn her too quickly, and it is a really big mistake should the company let her go."

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