DETROIT — In 1981, John Bergstrom applied to General Motors three times asking to start a car dealership. GM rejected his requests all three times for lack of capital. So one night he hand-wrote a letter to then-CEO Roger Smith saying, "Please give us a chance."
Just a few weeks later, Smith sent someone to Neenah, Wis., to talk with Bergstrom and help him get financing. "We opened our little store," Bergstrom recalls. "Roger came to our grand opening in September 1982."
Today, Bergstrom owns 25 dealerships, 13 of which are GM stores.
Smith's family called Bergstrom last week to tell him that his 82-year-old friend and mentor had died. Smith is survived by his wife of 53 years, Barbara; four children; and six grandchildren.
"We wouldn't be in the automotive business if it weren't for Roger Smith," Bergstrom says. "I will miss him. He's the one who gave us a chance."
Smith died here Thursday, Nov. 29, after a brief illness. He was GM's chairman and CEO from Jan. 1, 1981, until his retirement on July 31, 1990.
"He was a leader who knew that we have to accept change, understand change and learn to make it work for us," GM CEO Rick Wagoner said in a statement.
Smith, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, on July 12, 1925, directed the automaker during a revolutionary period in the industry. In the early 1980s, he restructured the company, integrating Fisher Body into GM.