Bill Hoglund, who died June 8 at 79, was one of the first General Motors senior executives to speak frankly about a "culture problem" at GM -- a topic now much in the news.
He led Pontiac during the division's "We Build Excitement" era in the early 1980s and looked like a CEO-in-waiting. But Hoglund was unusually blunt, something that set him apart in those days.
Had GM critic Ross Perot gained control of the company, Hoglund might have become his CEO. Perot joined the board in 1984 when GM bought Perot's Electronic Data Systems. Perot was soon lambasting GM Chairman Roger Smith in public, putting the flawed culture issue front and center.
Perot wanted involvement in GM's day-to-day affairs and asked the seemingly like-minded Hoglund to help make it happen. The two men talked while sharing a helicopter ride after the August 1986 board meeting. But aligning with Perot may have been a bridge too far for Hoglund, who still had a shot at succeeding Smith in 1990.
According to Doron Levin's 1989 book Irreconcilable Differences, Perot called Hoglund at his home in the fall of 1986 when the Smith-Perot war was at a fever pitch. He wanted to gauge the level of support among senior executives for Perot playing a bigger role at GM. Hoglund said: "Ross, I don't think anyone wants to speak with you about anything at this point. The public bashing of GM and Roger isn't helping any of us."
That was a key juncture in the controversy. GM eventually paid Perot to go away. Still, Hoglund may have carried too much baggage to get the top job when Smith retired. In 1990, Bob Stempel became CEO, and Lloyd Reuss was named president.
When Stempel was ousted two years later, Hoglund's career was back on track, and he joined the board of directors.
He became new CEO Jack Smith's "right-hand man" -- by Smith's own account.
He was the gray eminence for the new generation of leaders.
But his last hope of getting a supersized operating job ended when future CEO Rick Wagoner was put in charge of North American operations in 1994.