Roger Bonham Smith: Wikis

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Roger Bonham Smith
Born July 12, 1925(1925-07-12)
Columbus, Ohio, USA
Died November 29, 2007 (aged 82)
Detroit, Michigan, USA
Occupation Automobile executive
Known for Chairman and CEO of General Motors

Roger Bonham Smith (July 12, 1925 – November 29, 2007) was the Chairman and CEO of General Motors Corporation from 1981 to 1990, and is widely known as the main subject of Michael Moore's 1989 documentary film Roger & Me.

When Smith took over GM, it was reeling from its first annual loss since the early 1920s. Its reputation had been tarnished by lawsuits, persistent quality problems, bad labor relations, public protests over the installation of Chevrolet engines in Oldsmobiles and by a poorly designed diesel engine. GM was also losing market share to foreign automakers for the first time.

Smith instituted several initiatives that included forming strategic joint ventures with Japanese and Korean automakers, launching the Saturn division, investing heavily in technological automation and robotics, and attempting to rid the company of its risk-averse bureaucracy. However, Smith's far-reaching goals proved too overambitious and overwhelming to actually be implemented effectively, in the face of the company's resilient corporate culture and bureaucracy. Despite Smith's vision, he was unable to successfully integrate GM's major acquisitions, several of which also failed to tackle the root causes of GM's fundamental problems.[1]

Smith's tenure is commonly viewed as a failure, as GM's share of the US market fell from 46% to 35%, and as it took on considerable debt causing it to lapse close to bankruptcy in the early 1990s.[1][2] As a result, CNBC has called Smith one of the "Worst American CEOs of All Time".[3]



Beginnings with General Motors

Smith spent virtually his entire professional career working for General Motors. Born in Columbus, Ohio, USA, Smith earned his bachelor degree in business administration at the University of Michigan in 1947, and his MBA at the University of Michigan Business School in 1953. He served in the United States Navy from 1944 to 1946.

Smith began his career at GM in 1949 as an accounting clerk, and had become the company's treasurer by 1970, and vice president the following year. In 1974, Smith was elected executive vice president in charge of the financial, public relations, and government relations staffs. He ascended to GM's chairmanship in 1981.

Poletown plant controversy

In 1981, mayor Coleman Young and the city of Detroit won a notorious landmark decision in the Michigan Supreme Court, Poletown Neighborhood Council v. City of Detroit that allowed the city to use its eminent domain power to raze an existing immigrant neighborhood in neighboring Hamtramck. It resulted in the condemnation of the homes of over 4,200 residents, along with numerous businesses, churches and schools so that the land could be transferred to GM for the construction of a new factory. Although the deal predated Smith's tenure as Chairman, he subsequently used the construction of the new Poletown factory, along with plants on a greenfield site in Lake Orion Michigan, and one in Wentzville, MO (an identical twin to Orion) to showcase the technology he felt would lead GM into a new era. Unfortunately, the factories failed to live up to their promised employment goals or their status as a technology showcase, and since they were duplicates of existing GM factories, unable to flexibly produce different models, were ultimately panned by critics as obsolete on the day they opened.[2][4]

Reorganizing General Motors

Smith began the reorganization of GM that would define his chairmanship (see below), with the 1981 creation of the worldwide Truck and Bus Group, consolidating the design, manufacture, sales and service of all trucks, buses and vans under one umbrella. 1982 saw the creation of the Truck and Bus Manufacturing Division, which combined all truck manufacturing and assembly operations from their former divisions, but still a separate bureaucracy from that of the Truck and Bus Group.[5]

In 1982 Smith negotiated contract concessions with the United Auto Workers and cut planned raises for white-collar workers. After unveiling a more generous bonus program for top executives that provoked an angry response from the union, Smith was forced to back-pedal. Relations with the UAW, management, and stockholders remained strained. Profits improved in 1983 and Smith began unveiling his vision for reorganization, diversification, and "reindustrialization."[6]

One of the most controversial decisions made during Smith's tenure was the partial elimination of divisional autonomy in 1984. In the 1920s, Chairman and CEO Alfred Sloan, Jr. had established semi-autonomous divisions within the corporation, each designing and marketing their own vehicles (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick and Cadillac). This was considered a crucial factor propelling GM past market leader Ford in the 1930s. By the 1980s however, that autonomy (also including Fisher Body division producing the car bodies, and GM Assembly division building them) were seen as representing a dated business model that had led to needless large scale redundancy, infighting by the divisions, and a bloated internal bureaucracy.[7]

1984 reorganization

Smith took on the massive GM bureaucracy with disastrous results. A sea change in how GM would market and build cars in the future, the 1984 reorganization was intended to streamline the process and create greater efficiencies; the reverse actually occurred. Combining the nameplate divisions, Fisher Body, and GM Assembly into two groups, C-P-C (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Canada) to build small cars and B-O-C (Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac) to build large cars, the effort was subsequently criticized for creating chaos within the company. Longstanding informal relationships that greased the wheels of GM were severed, seemingly overnight, leading to confusion and slipping new product programs. The reorganization virtually stopped GM in its tracks for 18 months, and never really worked as intended, with the CPC division building Cadillacs and BOC building Pontiacs. The reorganization added costs and created more layers of bureaucracy when the new groups added management, marketing and engineering staff, duplicating existing staff at both the corporate and division levels. Almost ten years elapsed before the 1984 reorganization was unwound and all car groups were combined into one division.[7]

By the 1990s, GM's program of sharing components across divisions that began in the 70s as a way to cut costs grew into a marketing problem. After the 1984 reorganization forced teamwork by the divisions, parts sharing evolved into wholesale sharing of entire designs and simply re-badging vehicles for each division. Observers suggested that differences between automobiles produced and marketed by the Chevy, Buick, and Oldsmobile divisions were less distinct as a consequence. Automotive commentators cited a lack of a distinct brand identity and demographic changes as crucial factors in the demise of the Oldsmobile division in 2004. Compounding GM's problems was the fact that while entire platforms shared designs, the engineered parts beneath the surface, where customers didn't care or didn't notice were often not shared, which is where money could be saved. Analyst David Cole summed it up: "The engineering was 180 degrees out of phase. GM cars looked alike outside but were all different inside."[7]

GM10 debacle

Smith's major new car program prior to the 1984 reorganization, GM10, has been called "The biggest catastrophe in American industrial history."[7] Beginning in 1982, and costing $7 billion, the plan was to replace all midsize cars produced by Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Buick. The plan was huge in scope, calling for seven plants that would each assemble 250,000 of the cars, or 21% of the total U.S. car market. It was badly executed from the start, but the 1984 reorganization wrought havoc on the program and it never recovered. By 1989, the year before the last of the GM10s were launched, GM was losing $2000 on every one of the cars it produced. When asked by Fortune why GM10 was such a catastrophe, Smith replied, “I don't know. It's a mysterious thing. I've said I'll take my share of the blame on all those things. I was part of the team.[7]

Drive for modernization

A defining theme of Smith's tenure was his vision to modernize GM using advanced technology. Some have suggested he was ahead of his time in attempting to create a 21st century organization in a company not ready for the technology. "Lights out" factories were envisioned, where the only employees were those supervising the robots and computers. This was obviously viewed negatively by the unions, and further strained relations. Over the decade of the 1980s, GM spent upwards of $90 billion attempting to remake itself[8], including a 1981 joint venture with the Japanese robot manufacturer, Fujitsu-Fanuc. With the resulting venture, GMF Robotics, GM became the largest manufacturer of robots in the world. Unfortunately, the experience failed to meet the vision, with the new robots famously painting each other instead of the cars, or robots welding doors shut. Ultimately, some robotic systems and automation installed in several plants were removed shortly after their installation. The astonishing sums expended were widely viewed as money wasted.[2][4] Responding to a 1986 report on 3 year capital expenditures projected at almost $35 billion, VP of finance F. Alan Smith (no relation) opined that the sum could be spent on purchasing both Toyota and Nissan resulting in a bump in market share overnight and openly questioned whether the proposed capital expenditures would pay the same dividends; they did not. By the time Smith retired, GM had evolved from the lowest cost producer in Detroit to its highest cost producer, due in part to the drive to acquire advanced technology that never paid dividends in efficiency.[citation needed]

Acquisitions and divestitures

In 1984 Smith oversaw General Motors' acquisition of Electronic Data Systems from its founder Ross Perot for $2.55 billion, serving two purposes. First was the opportunity to modernize and automate GM to fulfill Smith's goals; second, it was an effort to broaden out of its manufacturing base and into technology and services. As a result of the EDS acquisition, Perot became GM's largest single shareholder, joined its board of directors, and immediately became a source of friction to Smith and a vocal and public critic of Smith and GM's management. In 1986 Smith and the board orchestrated a $743 million buyout of Perot's GM stock at a substantial premium over the market value of the shares. Perot accepted the buyout, but publicly denounced the expenditure as outrageous at a time GM was closing plants and laying off workers. He announced that he would put the money in escrow to give the automaker a chance to reconsider, but never actually sequestered the funds.[citation needed]

This merger is described in detail in the book "Call Me Roger" by Albert Lee, a former GM speechwriter, 1988, ISBN 0809246309. The structure of the deal was unusual in that EDS would be owned by GM, but Smith promised it would allow Perot autonomy to run the company. In addition, the stock of EDS became a special 'Class E' GM stock, which was separate from normal GM stock, an arrangement which almost got GM kicked off the NYSE. Perot eventually agreed to the deal, because, as Lee puts it, he was sold on the idea of saving millions of American jobs by helping GM fight off Japanese competition.[citation needed]

As Lee describes, the merger created problems from the start. First, EDS was a 'commando-like' operation, with many military vets, a distaste for bureaucracy, a strict dress and "moral code" (i.e., employees could not cohabit), and a somewhat egalitarian ethic between managers and workers. GM was the polar opposite, being the model of the large bureaucratic corporation that strongly resisted changes in the status quo. Second, only a small number of EDS employees were sent to Detroit, because EDS needed to hire new staff to provide the level of services GM would require. Although several thousand people would be 'EDS' employees in Detroit, only a few hundred would have been brought up in the EDS culture, with the majority of others being new hires dropped into it without warning. Additionally, the majority of GM's thousands of I.T. employees were transferred to EDS, many losing benefits or pensions, creating clashes with the EDS culture, and resulting in lawsuits, bad morale, and chaos.[citation needed]

The problems with the merger were not only about culture clashes. Although EDS had experience with automatic paper shuffling, it had no experience with engineering control systems, CAD, and other manufacturing uses of computers. Since EDS had its own stock, there was an inherent conflict of interest between the companies- an EDS employee working in Detroit at a GM plant was not primarily concerned about GM's performance, but about EDS performance, so they had a blank check to throw money at problems, bill GM, and watch their EDS stock go up. Finally, as Lee quotes Perot - "GM doesn't honor its contracts" - Smith had said he would not interfere with Perot, but the relationship fractured from the start, with conflicts over promised compensation to EDS executives being rejected by Smith, who also sent auditors to EDS to irritate Perot. GM also refused to give EDS the fixed-price long term contracts it had been promised.[citation needed]

The relationship between Smith, Perot, and the EDS executives ruptured openly in September 1985, during a meeting in Dallas that brought the EDS executive compensation issue to a head. Smith was reluctant to accept the EDS plan, substituting a plan of his own. Described in Irreconcilable Differences by Doron Levin, EDS' CFO was explaining to Smith how they felt GM's plan was inferior, when Smith lost his temper. "People in the room later would remember Smith's angry explosion as being wondrous and terrifying at the same time: wondrous for the extreme colors and sounds it brought to the room, terrifying because none of them had ever seen someone lose his temper so completely in a business meeting. The EDS officers stared in disbelief as the chairman of the world's biggest and most powerful company lost it."[9]

What ensued was one of the most vitriolic corporate battles of the 1980s, with Perot and Smith publicly exchanging barbs using the media, which delightedly splashed the story over every business publication in the U.S.. Perot notoriously lashed out at Smith in a 1988 exclusive to Fortune Magazine, saying: "My question is: Why haven't we unleashed their potential? The answer is: the General Motors system. It's like a blanket of fog that keeps these people from doing what they know needs to be done. I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it. At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years. The most likely course of action is—nothing. You figure, the snake hasn't bitten anybody yet, so you just let him crawl around on the factory floor. We need to build an environment where the first guy who sees the snake kills it."[10] Perot went on to needle Smith regarding the opulent 25th floor GM offices in New York, "An entire teak forest must have been decimated for that floor". Smith, who had obviously ignored the irony of the CEO of the largest public corporation in the world complaining about the opulence of the private office (which Perot had personally paid to furnish) of a rival, had responded to Perot's frequent criticism of GM's executive perks a year earlier, "Perot's office (in Dallas) 'makes mine look like a shanty-town. He has Remingtons; he has a Gilbert Stuart painting hanging on the wall. Nobody runs around saying 'Get rid of Ross's office''".[9][11]

A second large acquisition outside of the automobile industry followed in 1985, when Smith announced the purchase of Hughes Aircraft Company from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for $5.2 billion. The company was merged with GM's Delco Electronics to form Hughes Electronics.

Smith's purchases of EDS and Hughes were criticized as unwise diversions of resources at a time when GM could have invested more in its core automotive divisions. GM spun EDS off as an independent company in 1996. After some major acquisitions in the mid-1990s by Hughes Electronics (Magnavox Electronic Systems and PanAmSat), GM divested most of Hughes assets from 1997–2003, including sale of defense operations to Raytheon in 1997, the spinoff of Delphi Automotive Systems in 1999, the divestiture of Hughes Space and Communications to Boeing in 2000, and acquisition of the remaining communications and satellite operations (mostly DirecTV) by NewsCorp in 2003.[citation needed]

Solar Challenge

In 1987, Smith chose to have GM enter in the first World Solar Challenge race and he hired AeroVironment to build a winning solar-electric vehicle. The resulting car, the Sunraycer easily won the race at a cost of just under 2 million dollars. The success of the Sunraycer led directly to the AeroVironment-designed GM Impact prototype which in turn led to the EV-1.[12]

Personal life

Smith's tenure at GM ended in 1990, one year after the release of the popular underground documentary Roger and Me, where many displaced GM workers called for Smith's retirement. Smith voluntarily retired in good standing with GM, and later toured the new Saturn facility in Tennessee, which he brought to fruition, in 1991.

A native of Columbus, Ohio, Smith was married for 53 years to his wife Barbara. They had two sons, Roger B. Smith and Drew J. Smith; two daughters, Jennifer A. Ponski and Victoria B. Sawula; as well as six grandchildren.


Smith died in his sleep on November 29, 2007 after a short battle with an unspecified illness. A specific cause of death has never been released.


  1. ^ a b John Greenwald, "What Went Wrong? Everything at Once", Time, November 9, 1992
  2. ^ a b c Robert A.G. Monks, Nell Minow, Corporate Governance, 4th Edition (John Wiley & Sons, 2007)"GM Corporate Governance Case Study"
  3. ^ [1]
  4. ^ a b Lowell Turner, Democracy at Work: Changing World Markets and the Future of Labor Unions (New York: Cornell University Press, 1991)(Google Book Search image)
  5. ^ GM corporate website
  6. ^ Richard A. Wright,"Stockholder revolt- excerpted from West of Laramie; A Brief History of the Auto Industry"
  7. ^ a b c d e Alex Taylor III, Andrew Erdman, Justin Martin, and Tricia Welsh, "U.S. Cars Come Back", Fortune, November 16, 1992
  8. ^ By Alex Taylor III, Alicia Hills Moore and Wilton Woods, "Can GM Remodel Itself?...", Fortune, January 13, 1992
  9. ^ a b Doron P. Levin, Irreconcilable Differences: Ross Perot Versus General Motors (New York: Plume, 1990)
  10. ^ Thomas Moore, The GM System is Like a Blanket of Fog, Fortune, February 15, 1988
  11. ^ Janice Castro, Peace for a Price at GM Time, January 15, 1987 (Misdated 1/26/07 in web archive)
  12. ^ The EV-1 Timeline

13. EV1 History

Further reading

External links

Business positions
Preceded by
Thomas A. Murphy
Chairman General Motors
Succeeded by
Robert C. Stempel
Preceded by
Thomas A. Murphy
CEO General Motors
Succeeded by
Robert C. Stempel

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