Remembering Bob Stempel, car guy

Bob Stempel always had a presence.

I first saw him in a hotel meeting room before the Chicago auto show in 1982. A 40-something engineer, he was returning to the states from running Adam Opel in Germany and was to become general manager of Chevrolet. But he had a temporary title, something like sales manager, for another week or two.

I was new on the auto beat and listened to veteran journalists speculate about whether or not Stempel would show up speaking as a sales manager or as a general manager. Then Stempel walked in, casually stood among us and just, well, held court.

My first thought was "This guy isn't just a brand manager. He's a future GM chairman." The old hands on the beat had the same thought. And from that moment on, it wasn't whether Stempel would make it to the top -- only when.

He was a relative youngster when he made it to the top, still in his mid-50s. In better circumstances, he would be remembered as the visionary who led GM to greater heights over almost a decade at the helm, not a guy who lasted two years.

Professionally, Stempel was a builder, a whiz of an engineer with a knack for people. Personally, he was open, honest, energetic, compassionate and intellectually curious.

But as chairman and CEO of GM, he was born a generation too late.

Stempel was perfectly trained to run an expanding GM. What he inherited from Roger Smith was a GM in free fall -- a bloated, overbuilt, overstaffed hulk of a company. Stempel cut and whacked, presiding over a downturn in which GM closed a dozen plants and shed more than 70,000 workers.

And then Stempel himself was gone, jettisoned by a desperate board convinced he wasn't cutting deep enough or fast enough.

Bob was a guy born to build a company, not tear it down. He was the doctor you would trust to operate on your child. But in 1992 GM needed a battlefield surgeon ready to amputate a dozen limbs before breakfast.

That's not the measure of Bob Stempel. When I think of him, I don't remember the beleaguered chairman. I remember Bob the car guy.