DETROIT -- Former General Motors CEO Roger Smith died here Thursday, Nov. 29, after a brief illness. He was 82.
Smith was appointed chairman and CEO on Jan. 1, 1981, and led the company until his retirement on July 31, 1990.
Roger Smith led GM during a period of tremendous innovation in the industry. GM CEO Rick Wagoner said in a statement. He was a leader who knew that we have to accept change, understand change and learn to make it work for us. Roger was truly a pioneer in the fast-moving global industry that we now take for granted.
Smith directed GM during a revolutionary period in the auto industry. The business was expanding globally with tough new environmental and safety standards.
There was increased competition from imports, too. During Smiths tenure, GM introduced its front-wheel-drive mid-sized cars; formed New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., a joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp. to build cars in California; created Saturn Corp.; and bought EDS Corp. and Hughes Aircraft Co.
Pop culture pariah?
In pop culture, Smith is best known for the less-than-flattering portrayal of him in the 1989 Michael Moore documentary Roger & Me, in which Moore set out to confront Smith over GM plant closings and job losses in Flint, Mich. The award-winning film helped launch Moores career as a political satirist and dumped negative publicity on Smith and GM.
Moore could not be reached for comment. But on his Web site -- www.michaelmoore.com -- a picture of Smith has been posted along with information about where to send memorial donations.
His legacy is very mixed. In some respects there are a lot more positives than what might be the popular view, says Dave Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. A lot of people look at the movie Roger & Me as defining Roger Smith.
Dealers say the creation of Saturn is likely Smiths most memorable accomplishment.
Having three Saturn stores, if it hadnt been for him, I dont think that Saturn would have ever gotten off the drawing board, says Ed Williamson, owner of Williamson Cadillac in Miami. Were thankful for that, and that will probably be the No. 1 piece of his legacy.
Cole said Saturn created a model for labor relations with the UAW.
The creation of Saturn really created, in contrast to Roger & Me, an example in GM of a case study to really illustrate the new role that was required between labor and management. It brought a new model to the concept of selling vehicles.
Focus on market share
Another longtime dealer recalls that when Smith was the head of GM, the automaker had a large market share. One of his major focuses was market share, and thats why each division had such vast product lines. GM was quite healthy, says John Rogin, owner of John Rogin Buick in Livonia, Mich.
He really recognized the value of each brand having a full breadth of products from the entry level all the way up. That led to the market share that GM had at that time.
Cole said Smith also would be remembered for integrating Fisher Body into the rest of GM. The move helped define Smiths management style.
He had vision, Cole says. He sometimes made decisions that would have been maybe made better as a team. But he was not afraid to make decisions. He had strengths and weaknesses. You saw those in his decisions, but he was not afraid to lead from strength.
Smith was an executive vice president and a member of GMs board of directors from Dec. 1, 1974, until he was elected chairman.
Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio, on July 12, 1925. He graduated from Detroit University School in 1942 and served in the U.S. Navy from 1944 to 1946. Smith attended the University of Michigan, where he received a bachelors degree in business administration in 1947 and his masters degree in business administration in 1953.
He began his career at GM in 1949 as a general accounting clerk in the Detroit central office. After several promotions, he became treasurer of GM in 1970. A year later, Smith became vice president in charge of the financial staff and a member of the administrative committee.
In 1972, Smith became vice president and group executive in charge of the nonautomotive and Defense Group. In 1974, he was elected executive vice president. He was responsible for the financial, public relations and industry-government relations staffs.