Roger Smith won't be eulogized as the best CEO of General Motors. Critics will line up to talk about what happened at GM on his watch and how his vision for the giant automaker was out of sync with changes in the industry.
But I remember Smith as an accessible executive who took the time and had the patience to help a young financial reporter understand relatively insignificant details about the workings of the world's largest automaker.
I interviewed Smith for the first time about 30 years ago. I was a freshly minted financial editor at Automotive News and had called someone on GM's public relations staff with an innocuous question relating to a story I was reporting. No, I can't remember the question or the story, so it probably wasn't front-page news.
But instead of finding the answer for me, the PR staffer suggested I come in after lunch and let Smith explain it to me.
I was surprised, but I jumped at the chance.
Smith and I had exchanged pleasantries at a couple of GM's annual holiday parties for the media, but I didn't know him.
Back then, Smith was executive vice president in charge of finance and a bunch of other staff operations that formed the backbone of the company. He also was an odds-on favorite to be chairman someday. He was therefore someone I wanted to know.
No doubt his public relations handlers wanted Smith to get more experience talking to reporters, and they figured I'd be relatively harmless. Even so, it was my lucky day.
So I went to his office after lunch. We sat on couches and chatted for about 45 minutes. I got the explanation I needed -- and more insight than I had hoped for.
Over the years, I interviewed Smith again, including when he was CEO, and I was a somewhat savvier reporter. It was never the same. It was business as usual. Sometimes it was testy.
But 30 years ago, he welcomed a novice into his office and offered knowledge. He graciously played the role of teacher.
That's the Roger Smith I'll remember.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]