When John Smale joined the General Motors board in 1982, there was no reason to believe he would be any different than most nonemployee corporate directors of that era: a rubber stamp for management.
But Smale was different.
And when the 72-year-old retired chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. exits the GM board Tuesday, June 6, at the automaker's annual meeting, he will leave a legacy of revolution and change.
It was Smale who:
In 1992 led a palace coup in which GM directors deposed President Lloyd Reuss, Chairman Robert Stempel and other ranking executives.
From 1992 until January 1996 served as nonexecutive chairman, and in the process became the automaker's first nonemployee chairman since 1937.
Instilled a new corporate regard for shareholder value, promoting executives from the financial department into wide operational responsibilities.
Gave the CEO job to Jack Smith, who guided GM back to sound profitability, increasing shareholder value along the way.
Encouraged GM to hire executives from outside the industry, such as Ron Zarrella, now president of GM North America, and Debra Kelly-Ennis, the new marketing general manager of Oldsmobile.
Preached the gospel of brand management that he learned in the package goods industry and created a new marketing religion that earned converts inside GM and elsewhere in the industry.
In the 18 years since Smale joined the GM board, the industry has changed. There are fewer players in a truly global industry.
Publicly traded dealer groups and other large consolidators overshadow mom-and-pop dealerships in North America. Suppliers, too, have consolidated and formed new partnerships with each other and with automakers. The Internet has emerged, accelerating the rate of change.
But Smale's role in altering corporate governance and setting new priorities at the world's largest industrial company will prove to be the most significant change of all.