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Avon President Liz Smith leaves company to pursue CEO job

by Jessica Shambora

Photo courtesy of Avon

Some say patience is a virtue. Others say that if you want something, you have to go for it. This is the tactic Avon president Liz Smith is taking, as the company announced today that she will step down from her post on October 30, to pursue a CEO job elsewhere. Smith, No. 29 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list, will not be replaced, and the global business units she oversaw will now report to Avon CEO Andrea Jung, No. 5 on the list.

Smith won’t reveal who she might be talking to about the top job. But don’t be surprised if it’s a company ripe for overhaul. There are plenty of outfits that could use the help and Smith is known for seeking challenges. “It’s really always been in my DNA,” she told Fortune on Thursday, following the news of her plans to leave Avon.

Prior to her five years at the cosmetics company, she spent 14 years at Kraft . In 1996 she left a lucrative position running the Jell-O brand to transfer to a small U.S. import business related to a new European acquisition. Thanks in large part to Smith, the funny little mints called Altoids are now a household brand name.

“What has guided my career is that it’s about never settling for being less than inspired. What I’m looking for is to find an organization that I can bring a transformation to. I’m not a big believer in checklists and molds,” Smith said.

Many expected her to remain in the number two job until Jung retired. But Smith, 46, seems to have realized she would be in for a long wait. She may also be following the model set by Jung, who became CEO of Avon a decade ago at age 41.

“I’m 51, not 61, as it relates to my time horizon,” Jung told Fortune, about her commitment to staying at Avon for a while. “It’s bittersweet. It’s difficult to lose someone of Liz’s caliber, and these five years have been incredible.”

With Smith as her deputy, Jung has led a successful turnaround effort at Avon. The company hit over $10 billion in sales last year, and the stock, at $32, has more than doubled since its March low.

“Liz has brought extraordinary change to company as it relates to operating acumen, a new lens of how to look at the business, and how to drive growth and profitability,” Jung says.  “Both of us have groomed the transformation. We couldn’t have done it without her.”

Meanwhile, “extraordinarily visionary” is how Smith describes Jung. “You need business acumen, and you also need that something that’s about inspiring and bring out the best in people.”

Smith was among six women Fortune profiled in a 2007 piece, “One step away,” about rising stars on track to become Fortune 500 CEOs. Only Schering-Plough’s Carrie Cox remains in her same job (and not for long as Merck’s acquisition of Schering is expected to close by year-end). For more on the other women in the story, click here.

Smith hasn’t said she’s set on becoming the Fortune 500’s 16th female CEO. But Jung is convinced she can handle the job.

“I feel proud that I’ve been a part of helping Liz get to this next stage in her career, and I look forward to seeing her on the list of female Fortune 500 CEOs,” Jung says.