Mary Dillon, the CEO of Bolingbrook-based Ulta Salon Cosmetics & Fragrance Inc. is a mother of four, the first in her South Side family to go to college—and, says Gary Balter, a New York-based analyst at Credit Suisse, a "forward-thinking" executive willing to dive into uncharted waters.

The University of Illinois at Chicago graduate climbed the ranks at PepsiCo Inc.'s Quaker Foods before taking over a $2 billion annual advertising budget as McDonald's Corp chief marketing officer. After helping the Golden Arches reach two coveted demographics—mothers and families—Ms. Dillon took the top job at U.S. Cellular Corp. in 2010.

She departed for the $2.7 billion Ulta in summer 2013. Her action plan so far: slow down aggressive store expansion and improve e-commerce, supply-chain and brand positioning. The ambitious CEO has predicted this strategy will help Ulta elbow out Sephora as the world's beauty authority by 2020.

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