The U.S. auto industry has always been enthralled by large personalities - Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca, Jacques Nasser. Luckily, no one would put Jack Smith on that list.
In his 11 years atop General Motors, Smith has provided the right medicine for the No. 1 automaker. He has given no stirring speeches, offered no grand vision. Instead, Smith has brought something more valuable: a methodical approach to fix GM slowly but surely.
Benchmarks have been important to Smith. GM engineers have become students of Japanese manufacturing methods. Before Smith, GM's corporate culture resisted outside ideas.
Smith is a keen student of GM's corporate history. Internal rivalries and fiefdoms once plagued the company. When Smith became president in 1992, 27 purchasing operations were buying parts and services. Now there is one such operation.
Smith also ended GM's habit of giving suppliers higher prices each year for parts. Inspired by J. Ignacio Lopez, Smith forced suppliers to cut prices. Though Lopez's tactics were unduly harsh - and GM later softened the approach - he did trigger much-needed reform.
Before Smith, the product divisions had too much autonomy. That led Oldsmobile and Buick, for example, to chase the same customers with similar products. Now, the divisions work in one organization.
Smith has made insufficient progress improving GM's products. Trucks are in good shape, but cars need help. His first attempt, hiring Ron Zarrella to instill brand management, was largely a failure.
Smith and his protege, CEO Rick Wagoner, remained open enough to outsiders to hire Robert Lutz as vice chairman of product development in 2001. Lutz's efforts so far are on the money. As Smith heads to retirement on May 1, a strong management team will carry on. The team includes Wagoner, Lutz, and CFO John Devine, who also was hired from the outside.
Smith's methodical approach won't win him a lucrative spot on the business-lecture circuit. For GM, that's a good thing.