Mixed Legacy For GM's Roger Smith

Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors Corporation, Jan. 1, 1986
AP (file)
He's best remembered as the target of the caustic Michael Moore documentary "Roger & Me," but to his peers in the auto industry, Roger B. Smith was a leader who helped prepare General Motors Corp. for the fierce global competition it now faces.

Smith, GM's chairman and chief executive from Jan. 1, 1981 to July 31, 1990, died Thursday in the Detroit area at the age of 82 after a brief but unspecified illness.

The Ohio native's tenure as chairman began as Japanese automakers were gaining momentum in the U.S., and he responded by creating the Saturn small-car brand and with GM's first front-wheel-drive midsize cars. He also formed a controversial joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp. to build cars in California, and acquired Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Aircraft Corp.

"Roger was truly a pioneer in the fast-moving global industry that we now take for granted," current GM Chairman and 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."

Most people, though, remember Smith from the 1989 documentary by Michael Moore, which explored how GM's plant closings and layoffs had affected his hometown of Flint.

The film chronicles Moore's fruitless attempts to interview Smith about the devastation in Flint, although magazine articles and documentaries have alleged that Smith granted interviews to Moore prior to the film's release.

Moore has acknowledged a five-minute exchange with Smith about a company tax abatement during the public comment portion of a 1987 shareholders' meeting, but said that was before he started working on the movie.

Smith often faced questions about the documentary, which contained interviews of people who said they lost their homes after GM plant closures.

One woman said she had to start killing rabbits for food after GM shut down the plants, eliminating 30,000 jobs in the city of 150,000.

"I haven't seen it," Smith told reporters shortly after the film was released. "I'm not much for sick humor, and I don't like things that take advantage of poor people."

Robert Stempel, who succeeded Smith as GM chairman and CEO, said Smith never was bothered by the movie.

"Those things, when you're a CEO, you learn to roll with the punches," Stempel said Friday. "You can't let yourself get bruised by that sort of thing. You have to rise above it, and he certainly did."

But Gerald Meyers, a former chairman of American Motors Corp. who knew Smith, said Smith thought "Roger & Me" was a smear job.

"I don't think he ever got over it," Meyers said.

Stempel, who served as president under Smith, said Smith foresaw Japanese imports rising in the U.S. and fuel efficiency becoming a major issue. He set up Saturn and led the shift of many GM cars from rear-wheel-drive to more efficient front-wheel-drive vehicles.

"He wanted to try to stem the tide if he could," Stempel said of the Japanese. "He put a lot of effort into some small-car activities and other things and certainly promoted the widespread use of front wheel drive in GM."

Despite the efforts, GM's U.S. market share dropped from around 45 percent when Smith took GM's top job to just over 36 percent when he left. The company's market share currently is about 24 percent.

Meyers said Saturn never reached expectations, failing to attract buyers of Toyota Camrys and Honda Accords.

During his tenure, Smith led GM to grow its global business, and he had to deal with tough U.S. environmental and safety standards, the company said.

He also saw that GM, with separate marketing, engineering, design and some manufacturing operations for each of its brands, needed to be consolidated to better compete with global automakers, said Gus Buenz, a spokesman for Oldsmobile under Smith.

"He was ready to take risks and make changes he felt were necessary to compete with what was coming from our foreign competition," Buenz said. "That mind-set, I think, is very much within GM today."

The consolidation, though, brought job losses, and Flint was among the hardest-hit areas.

GM under Smith made sure laid-off workers kept benefits for a time to help them transition into other jobs, said Al Warren, who was vice president for industrial relations during Smith's tenure.

Smith was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1925 and served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946. He received a bachelor's degree in business administration in 1947 from the University of Michigan, and a master's degree in business from the school in 1953.

His career at GM began in 1949 as an accounting clerk. He became treasurer in 1970 and vice president in 1971. In 1974, he was elected executive vice president in charge of the financial, public relations and government relations staffs.

Smith is survived by Barbara, his wife of 53 years; four children: Roger Jr., Jennifer Ponski, Victoria Sawula, and Drew; and six grandchildren.
By Tom Krisher