Outsider Elmer Johnson shook up GM

Chicago lawyer Elmer Johnson, shown here in 1987, was positioned to lead GM in the late 1980s.
Most of Elmer Johnson's career was spent as a corporate-governance attorney, but in Detroit the former General Motors executive vice president will be remembered for helping shake up GM and the industry in the mid-1980s. Johnson died Feb. 19 in Arizona after a long battle with cancer. He was 75.

With no hands-on automotive experience, Johnson was the first outsider in GM history to be considered for a chairmanship.

He joined GM in 1983 as general counsel and was a director of the company during his five-year tenure. His responsibilities grew to include labor relations, sales and marketing.

"He was a remarkable person and brought his keen insight and intellect to many innovative situations in which the corporation was involved," GM CEO Rick Wagoner said in a statement.

Johnson was hired by then GM Chairman Roger Smith to give the automaker an overhaul. The ex-managing partner of Chicago law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLC hit the ground running, creating stringent employee evaluation systems and implementing merit-based raises as opposed to raises determined by the rise or fall of inflation, according to the June 1988 issue of The American Lawyer. The story in the legal trade publication was titled "Can a Kirkland partner make good running General Motors?"

Johnson also played a role in eliminating 36,000 white-collar GM jobs, aiming for a goal of cutting jobs 25 percent by the early 1990s.

He told Automotive News at the time, "We have to look at ourselves and ask original thoughts: Does this person or does this function add value to the operation." Taking Socrates' advice, he said, "An unexamined corporation is not worth perpetuating — an unexamined life is not worth living."

Johnson assisted GM in acquiring EDS in 1984 and Hughes Aircraft in 1985. He also created the strategy for the $750 million buyout of billionaire Ross Perot's GM stake in 1986.

Johnson left GM in 1988 because of conflicting ideas with Smith. According to press reports at the time, Johnson, "a frustrated critic" of the manufacturer, resigned "because of its resistance to change."

Johnson spent most of his career at Kirkland & Ellis, which he joined in 1956. He was managing director for a total of 20 years and left the firm in 1999. Since 2002, he had been a partner at Chicago law firm Jenner & Block LLP. 

Crain's Chicago Business contributed to this report

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