RICHMOND -- When Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to the United States recently and urged business leaders to invest in his country, it was "music to my ears," said Reynolds Metals Co.'s William O. Bourke.

"We're already where he's telling them they ought to be," Bourke said. "That ship has sailed."

More precisely, the vehicle is a sled gliding across icy Siberia, where the Richmond-based Reynolds firm is a partner in a planned $200 million aluminum foil manufacturing plant that could make Reynolds Wrap a household name in Eastern Europe, just as it is here.

The political changes that are shaking up the Soviet Bloc are creating vast business opportunities for American companies, said Bourke, 63, chairman and chief executive of Reynolds.

But when Bourke first came to Reynolds in 1981, the company would have been hard-pressed to jump at such a chance.

"We went through the most painful experience a company can go through, and that's one of shrinking, hunkering down, laying off a lot of people," Bourke said. "I'm sure it was in the minds of a lot of our young people as to whether or not there was any future in our industry or in our company."

A decade ago, Bourke faced a similar personal dilemma about his future. Passed over for the presidency of Ford Motor Co., he retired in 1980 to his Albemarle County farm.

He tried to adjust from supervising 280,000 employees at the automaker to directing a 120-acre cattle and orchard operation with no one but a farm manager to take orders.

But after about 18 months, Reynolds Chairman David P. Reynolds "called me out of the blue one day and invited me to lunch." Bourke thought Reynolds was going to offer him a seat on the company's board of directors.

"I had no idea he was going to offer me a job," he said.

But that is what happened. Reynolds, who was 67 at the time, wanted Bourke to become executive vice president for operations. "That'll get your feet wet in a hell of a hurry," he said Reynolds told him.

Bourke drove back to his farm, about an hour west of Richmond in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, to talk to his wife. She advised him to take the job because "you're getting to be a real pain around here," he recalled her saying.

Bourke came aboard in October 1981 at a time when the company had a staggering debt load and periodically was shaken by surges in aluminum prices and demand. In 1982, Reynolds reported a $24 million loss.

Bourke set out to cut costs and pay off the debt, a streamlining that meant hundreds of job losses.

"That's a very painful, difficult process, and it went on here about 3 1/2 years."

He remembered going to a dinner party one night and being told, "You're probably the most hated man in Richmond right now."

"Well, that's difficult to hear," he said. "I said, 'I'm trying to save a company. The people who are still with the company I'm sure will see the day when they're thankful that we've done what we've done.'"

After the debt and operating costs were brought under control, Bourke -- elevated to chief executive in 1986 and chairman in 1988 -- looked to improve efficiency by upgrading operations with the latest technology. He also looked at acquisitions to complement the company's main consumer product, Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil.

He settled, among other buys, on Presto Products, a maker of in-house grocery store brands of plastic food wraps.

Last year, Reynolds had a record $6 billion in revenue and $533 million in earnings. Revenue has increased more than 50 percent over the past two years.

In addition to expanding the consumer product line, which had $725 million in sales last year, Reynolds is trying to boost industrial sales of aluminum, primarily in automobiles.

Bourke, once an auto industry insider, is critical of U.S. car makers for being slow to develop engines that use light-weight aluminum parts.

"The American car manufacturer was looking at the almighty penny. Not the dollar, the penny," he said. But the loss of cheap and plentiful gasoline, along with competition from abroad, has changed that, he said.

"We're getting into big volumes, big scale" in orders from Detroit, he said.

Louis Hannen, a stock analyst who follows Reynolds for Wheat First Securities Inc. in Richmond, said Bourke has done a masterful job in turning the company around.

"It was a distant third in a three-company industry when he came in," Hannen said. Reynolds's two chief competitors are Aluminum Co. of America of Pittsburgh and Alcan Aluminum Ltd. of Canada.

"He has tried to get Reynolds into higher value-added products instead of just being a producer of ingot," Hannen said. "Reynolds was the highest cost {ingot} producer in the industry by far, and they couldn't compete. So he played away from his weakness."

While boosting the Reynolds consumer line, Bourke also lowered ingot production costs. "Now they can compete," Hannen said.

Bourke said his objective is to make Reynolds "as good as or better than anybody else in everything we do."

Finishing that objective will take about 10 more years, he said, which means it will fall to his successors to complete the task. Bourke plans to retire in April 1992.

"I've often said to our people that my legacy will be written after I leave, not while I'm here," Bourke said. "Just look at Reynolds Metals and how it performs through the balance of the '90s. Then you can tell me whether I did a good job or not."