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With Xerox split, the future for Ursula Burns is unclear

Ursula Burns, chief executive officer of Xerox, is a 35-year veteran of the company who has held the top job since 2009.  (Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg)

On Friday, Xerox confirmed the news that it will be joining the ranks of legacy businesses opting to split themselves in two, dividing the 100-year-old provider of business services and maker of copiers and scanners into two publicly traded companies: One that will hold its document technology business and another that will hold its services operations.

What's less certain about Xerox's future is the fate of its CEO, Ursula Burns, a 35-year veteran of the company who has held the top job since 2009. Early in her tenure, Xerox made a big-bet acquisition to push the company further into back-office services for governments and companies. Friday's news marks a reversal of that strategy, one undertaken after a strategic review Xerox's board began in October. During that time, activist investor Carl Icahn revealed he had taken a stake in the company.

Yet Burns' tenure has also been historic. She is not just the only female African American that's CEO of a Fortune 500 company, she is also the first. Even her transition into the job was significant: When Anne Mulcahy handed her the reins in 2009, it was the first time a female CEO had succeeded another woman at the top of a major U.S. corporation.

On Friday, the company said the new services company will do a search for an external CEO, meaning that job is unlikely to go to Burns. It also did not name a future leader for the hardware business.

In an interview on CNBC, Burns would not comment over whether she anticipated staying with either company, but said she pushed the board to not think about her future as it evaluated its options.

"What I wanted our board and our management team and me to do was to think about what the best path for the company is going forward, not what the best role is for me," she said.

Carl Langsenkamp, a spokesman for Xerox, said in an emailed statement that Burns will discuss her recommendations for the future leadership of the companies with the board "at the appropriate time," noting that "Ursula is -- first and foremost -- focused on delivering on our 2016 plan and executing the separation and strategic transformation we announced today."

If she were to leave the company, it's possible there would be no remaining African American women running a Fortune 500 company.

"It's a shame," said Steve Mader, vice chairman of the board services practice for the executive search firm Korn Ferry. "There's just more talent than that out there."

Burns is the increasingly rare corporate lifer -- she joined Xerox as an intern in 1980 and has spent 35 years at the company. Her husband was a scientist and researcher at Xerox. Raised by a single mother in a housing project in New York, she's known as a frank, no-nonsense risk-taker. On the web site Lean In, she wrote that her life had been a series of moments where she applied courage to take less predictable routes: "As CEO, I pulled the trigger on a major acquisition, which transformed Xerox from a copy and printing company to a technology and services enterprise."

At Xerox, she worked her way up the ladder, becoming a trusted lieutenant to Mulcahy as they worked to bring the company back from the brink of bankruptcy. Mulcahy focused on customer service and the company's financial health, while Burns focused on operations, BusinessWeek reported soon after Burns got the top job.

But despite their success, she still faced a tough business environment once she became CEO. Soon into her tenure, Xerox bought Affiliated Computer Services for $6.2 billion, a "game-changer" deal, Burns said at the time, intended to marry Xerox's legacy business with a broader range of business services. But while that services business has grown, the company as a whole has seen years of sales and profit declines.

That deal is now being unwound. The board initiated a strategic review in October, Burns said in TV interviews Friday, working to clarify that the board did not talk to Icahn, the activist investor, until it made its decision. "He did not drive it," she told CNBC.

Whether Burns will stay on as the company splits is unclear, but some governance experts see it as unlikely. Because the decision to split the company was a reversal of a strategy she had pursued, "I'd be surprised if she stayed," said Charles Elson, director of a corporate governance center at the University of Delaware. "It'd be unusual."

Yet Korn Ferry's Mader gives it a 50-50 shot. "She knows the business inside and out," he said. "She took a big gutsy risk, and it didn't work. That doesn't mean she isn't capable of running the original core business."

Ultimately, the decision will be up to the board. The Wall Street Journal reported that Burns said she had an idea of what she wanted to do, but has put off sharing it until the board's review was over.

“I want to do that without anyone seeing my face or any of my management’s face in a job, because that actually can cloud a decision," she told the paper. “All that will come after.”

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