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Pivot Point: GM diversifies, reorganizes — and falters badly

Roger Smith's diversification strategy created Saturn — and lots of problems

Acquisitions diverted focus from core business, and U.S. market share plunged in the '80s

A reporter interviews Roger Smith in 1980 at the groundbreaking for a Detroit assembly plant.
Roger Smith was a pop-culture punching bag in the late 1980s, but he gets some vindication in the survival of the Saturn brand — one of his pet projects as chairman and CEO of General Motors from 1981 until his retirement in 1990.

Smith died in November 2007 at age 82.

He championed diversification — the acquisitions of Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Aircraft and various financial properties.

But he let GM's core businesses (cars and trucks) go to pot. Quality slipped badly, and GM produced cookie-cutter cars — a Chevrolet and a Buick differed primarily by badge and price sticker.

Worst of all, GM's market share declined from 44.5 percent in 1980 to 35.1 percent in 1989.

Also, Smith's massive 1984 reorganization of GM was a failure. Reorganization was needed, but as Wall Street analyst Maryann Keller aptly put it: "The theory that change was imperative was correct. However, nothing went right in its implementation. Much of Roger Smith's tenure was like that: good idea, poor execution."

Smith's GM journey
1949: Joined GM financial staff
1970: GM treasurer
1971: Finance vice president
1974: Executive VP, finance, PR, industry-government relations
1981: GM chairman and CEO
1990: Saturn introduced
1990: Retired from GM
2007: Died in November, age 82

Saturn was different

Smith conceived Saturn as an import-fighter with as few visible ties to the parent company as possible.

Saturn was different. It employed groundbreaking technology, like plastic body panels and lost-foam casting. It pioneered a no-haggle sales process, and it had a separate distribution channel, with exclusive dealerships and handpicked dealers with larger territories than other GM dealers. Saturn had its own factory in Spring Hill, Tenn., and a separate, money-saving labor agreement with the UAW.

The idea was to win back small-car buyers from Japanese brands. Clearly, Saturn was unable to do that. And its current brand positioning bears little relation to that of Smith's day.

But Saturn still is a leader in satisfying customers, and it probably wouldn't exist at all today if it weren't for Smith.

"He was not afraid to tackle the idea of change, which was not in the vocabulary of GM at the time," says Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"The execution could have been better ... but Roger kind of blew up the organizational structure. He deserves a great deal of credit for challenging the status quo.

"But it was hard for him to work with a team. Roger had such a strong personality."

The consensus on Roger Smith: Bold and smart, but an autocrat who executed his plans poorly

Pros and cons

Smith joined GM in 1949. He moved up through the ranks of the finance organization, not an unusual path to the top at the company. He rose to corporate treasurer in 1970. By 1974, Smith was an executive vice president, responsible for finance, public relations and industry-government relations.

By all accounts, Smith was brilliant.

"Roger was the chairman when I started," says Fritz Henderson, 49, president and COO of GM. "He was a very smart guy, an extraordinarily smart guy."

Smith got high marks from GM insiders for his investments. Mike Losh, 62, a former CFO of GM, says Smith's $4 billion investment in EDS and Hughes Aircraft was worth 10 times that much when they were sold.

Critics such Keller called several of Smith's ventures, like investing in robotics and electronics, expensive distractions from the life-or-death issues of conceiving and producing higher-quality, more attractive cars and trucks.

Smith was vulnerable to criticism that he was a bean counter, not a car guy. He had a reputation for keeping his plans to himself and for meddling with details without consulting the people who reported to him, Cole says. In short, Smith had a reputation for being an autocrat.

"He managed the company right up until midnight of the day he retired," Cole says. "That was not a good attitude, and his preparation for the team to succeed him was not very good."

But it took an autocrat to launch Saturn and keep it alive over the howling objections of Chevrolet dealers, who thought it was their job to win back entry-level buyers.

Losh, who retired from GM in 2000, was Oldsmobile's general manager at the time of the Saturn launch. Saturn "consumed a huge amount of resources that were, therefore, resources not available to other efforts," he says.

Losh diplomatically says it's "too soon to judge" Saturn's ultimate worth. But he says his educated guess is that Saturn has never made much of a profit for GM.

Roger & Me

Fairly or not, Smith never lived down his unwanted association with the 1989 documentary Roger & Me. The film made the reputation of filmmaker Michael Moore, but it destroyed Smith's image in the popular culture.

Moore made a show of trying to ambush Smith publicly, ostensibly to get him to visit Flint, Mich., which had been devastated by GM plant closings. In the film's climax, Moore juxtaposed images of Smith reading a sentimental Christmas greeting to a well-dressed crowd with images of a distraught Flint family being evicted the day before Christmas Eve.

Cornered after the Christmas speech, Smith said: "I've been to Flint. I'm sorry for those people, but I don't know anything about it. ... I can assure you, GM didn't evict them."

Says Henderson: "I would say Roger was the leader in a very challenging period, and he did some things really well. But he took a lot of bullets for what happened during that period."

You can reach Jim Henry at autonews@crain.com

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