Roger Bonham Smith was not a CEO out of central casting.
Standing at medium height and with blond-reddish hair, a ruddy complexion and a rather high-pitched voice, he hardly fit the stereotype of a boardroom tycoon.
But that's precisely what he was as chairman of General Motors Corp. from 1981-1990. He died at age 82 on Nov.30, and to the end remained silent about his 42-year GM career.
“I'm taking it to the grave,” he replied when repeatedly asked to tell of his time at GM.
Bright and warm with friends but tough on colleagues, Smith also was one of GM's most controversial leaders. Few among his subordinates spoke reverently about him, and many privately branded him a tyrant.
Yet in heading what was then the world's largest corporation based on annual revenues, he weathered some tumultuous times and took a series of bold steps into uncharted territory that those with less fortitude may never have taken — for better or worse.
Four of those moves stand out: Launching Saturn as an entirely new company to compete against Japanese models; acquiring Electronic Data Systems (EDS) from fiery Ross Perot; purchasing Hughes Aircraft Co.; and tying in with Toyota Motor Corp. to build GM and Toyota cars at a GM plant in Fremont, CA.
But he also made questionable decisions that still haunt GM today. One was the 1984 reorganization designed to streamline the company but, with GM's ingrained bureaucracy, had almost the opposite effect. Organization and operations charts were tossed aside and new ones redrawn, resulting in near chaos down the ranks.
Some GM old-timers say the “reorg,” as they called it, set back GM's core product development programs just when it needed to be paying much more attention to burgeoning competition.
Although Smith loved cars, he was not a “car guy” in the traditional sense. His career was almost entirely on the financial side, and an underling who didn't deliver a strong business case for his project would find it to be a no-go.
Few who didn't really know Roger Smith — including movie viewers who saw him rapped by movie maker Michael Moore in his sardonic documentary, “Roger and Me” — would be surprised to learn he had a keen sense of humor and a common touch. He once described a reporter he especially disliked as having a brain that wouldn't fit on top of a pin.
And he liked to pique attention by slyly reminding reporters that he had a “lulu” he was about to disclose.
One of those lulus was Saturn. Top GM insiders of that era in the late 1980s still argue that Saturn was a $2-billion waste — that Chevrolet first, but perhaps the other divisions as well, could have used that cash to develop stronger competitive models.
Others, however, saw Saturn as symbolizing GM's commitment to changing the way it addressed the market and customers.
Saturn reportedly seldom made money in its early years and only now — 20 years after it was conceived — does it appear to be routed toward success.
What if, asked some close to GM at the time, the auto maker had pumped cash into Oldsmobile instead, rather than later killing it off?
Smith reportedly paid $5 billion each for EDS and Hughes, although he once confided the number was closer to $4 billion apiece. Both since have been spun off at a multiple much higher than GM had paid.
Smith got Perot in the bargain, as he joined GM's board of directors. But their relationship was not without its ups and downs, breaking at one point into open warfare. Still, in EDS Smith infused GM with information technology it did not have.
A book may yet be written about Smith's tenure at GM. Sadly, it won't be a first-hand account.
David C. Smith, no relation, interviewed GM's Roger Smith dozens of times over 20 years as the former editor-in-chief of Ward's AutoWorld.