By on November 30, 2007

x07co_ex136.jpg“Roger Smith led GM during a period of tremendous innovation in the industry. He was a leader who knew that we have to accept change, understand change and learn to make it work for us. Roger was truly a pioneer in the fast-moving global industry that we now take for granted.” You can't expect GM CEO Rick Wagoner to speak ill of the dead, but the truth is that Smith was an utter disaster for GM. In GM Death Watch 116, our own Eric Stephans wrote: "After a massive reorganization in 1984, Smith dismissed thousands of workers and began a buying spree of epic proportions. GM’s CEO spent an estimated $40b on a laundry list of fashionable solutions and distractions: NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.), EDS (Electronic Data Systems Corporation), Hughes Aircraft and more. GM’s culture ignored the benefits of these innovations. The Toyota-style production techniques learned at NUMMI and the union-friendly ideas implemented at Saturn’s Spring Hill plant never made it outside the factory gates. GM management remained impervious to EDS’ can-do culture. Saturn devolved into another badge-engineered GM platform brand." Today's GM owes Roger Smith a debt, but it's not one of gratitude. 

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17 Comments on “Daily Podcast: Roger Smith RIP...”


  • avatar
    spt87a

    The sharp decline of GM market share began during Roger’s tenure. Money and energy was diverted to buying companies and starting new brands (Saturn and Geo) instead of product development to build better cars.

    He also made the GM work force more combative than ever by convincing them to give concessions in the early ’80s, then taking big bonuses for himself and when profits came back declaring that “he” had turned the company around. The GM employess never forgot that and it certainly contributed to the poor and combative labor relations that followed for the next decade+.

    Soon after he left was the first near death experience in the early ’90s when Ford was eating their lunch and they started selling divisions to pay back the pension fund.

    So long Roger – hope your enjoying those bonuses more than your legacy……

  • avatar
    allen5h

    I wonder what happens to the money when former CEOs die. I do not know how much money RS was getting from GM every year as his retirement, but let’s say he was getting $1.0 million per year. Does this $1.0 million get paid out every year continuously and forever by GM to RS’s estate even after death?

  • avatar
    Rastus

    I’ve known two family members to own those first Saturns. SL2’s to be specific, both of them.

    Junk, absolutely and without a doubt junk!

    This guy is a clown at the highest level. But I suppose some people need to look up to others, regardless of whether or not they truly ARE a clown (kind of like the Wizard of Oz).

    Maybe he can issue us a rebate from the great beyond.

    Roger, you were truly a diabolical bastard. I hope the eternal damnation you brought upon yourself is tolerable.

  • avatar
    whatdoiknow1

    Im not so sure that Roger Smith deserves all of this blame for GM piss -poor performance during the 1980s.
    Out of the 4 domestic auto-makers that entered the 1980s as player only Chysler appeared to understand how the game had changed. Needless to say it was brink of death that allowed Chysler as a company to see that a change was necessary to survive.

    No one at the helm of GM or Ford could have made these companies change during the 1980s. Both companies weer both still making too much money to read the writing on the wall.

    The impression I do get is that Roger Smith did understand that GM was in “long term” trouble and a major shift in corporate focus was necessary to set GM on the correct path for the future.

    It is easy to blame Roger Smith for everything that is wrong today with GM but in reality GM began the 1980s with an obsolete protfolio of products. Brnads like Buick and Oldsmobile were already well into their “golden years” and Cadillac had already taken a major beating in the luxury market at the hands of Mercedes Benz. Americans had already began the movement away from traditional Detroit Iron and into the arms of those Japanese Imports.

    While I am no expert on GM and the industry I do know that Smith did try to introduce a new level of technical safistication into GM auto production with robotic plants and new joint ventures with Toyota. With the creation of Saturn Smith understood that too many of the costumers that GM needed where no longer interested in a Chevy or Pontiac with silly chrome bumpers and trim.

    GM culture is GMs problem. GM has spent the last three decades trying to cater to an aging and dying demographic of customers. All the while Honda, Nissan, and Toyota were having NO problems getting Americans into non-traditional automobiles (can we say MODERN)!

    The TTAC DW series does an excelelnt job of telling the history of GMs decline. In all honesty GM and Roger Smith were the victims of GMs own former success. The industry had changed, while GM was still set up to producue millions of body on frame, RWD, live axled cars with iron OHV carburated engines. The world had moved on to space-frames, monocoque chassis, FWD, OHC engines and fuel injection.

    Just think about how long it took GM to understand that younger buyers hated column shifters.

    In 1980 the forces in place to maintain the status quo at GM were far more powerful than any one man including R. Smith. Just ask Rich Wagoneer how hard it is to run GM today!

  • avatar
    Rastus

    Yes, but you make Rick Wagoner out to be someone who’s “fighting” the existing culture, tooth and nail.

    That is as far from the truth as it can possibly be.

    Ricky is part of the problem. Plain and simple.

    …In other words, nothing has changed one iota.

    (But don’t worry, those new Opels …that is, “Saturns”…will save the day!!!).

    “GM, The Mark of (Engineering) Excellence” has been flushed down the toilet…and no bean-counter-in- charge will turn that around.

  • avatar
    Blunozer

    As CEOs, both Roger and Rick are ultimately responsible for what happens during their watch.

    Roger may not be solely responsible for GMs ills, but he sure didn’t help.

    Saturn has proven to be nothing but a waste of money.

    NUMMI has converted more GM buyers to buy Toyota… They go to a GM dealer, buy a Toyota product (which doesn’t break).

    Worst of all, it was during Roger’s watch that badge engineering really got out of control at GM. Remember the Ciera/6000/Celebrity/Century?

  • avatar
    umterp85

    Can we at least have the respect to wait a few days before we rip the deceased—come on—we are talking about cars here folks–not Hitler.

  • avatar

    Tomorrow’s podcast – RIP Evel Knievel

    The trifecta is in play.

  • avatar
    UnclePete

    Blunozer: Worst of all, it was during Roger’s watch that badge engineering really got out of control at GM. Remember the Ciera/6000/Celebrity/Century?

    Didn’t the Cadillac Cimarron get greenlighted during his term, or did it predate him?

    This was also the time when they thought they could automate their way to the top. IIRC it made GM the most expensive cars to produce at the time vs the lowest expense cars to produce pre-automation. Oops.

  • avatar
    Blunozer

    UnclePete:

    The Cimarron cama out in ’82, one year after Smith’s appointment to CEO. He can’t be blamed entirely for it… But he had his hand in it, surely. He was on the GM Board of Bystanders since 1974.

    Hey, when did GM start running into trouble again? Wasn’t it in the 70s?

    ;)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Bonham_Smith

    Interesting reading in the “The 1984 Reorganization”, “The GM10 Debacle”, “Drive for Modernization” and “Acquisitions and Divestitures” sections.

  • avatar
    timd38

    Based on what he did to GM, he must have been getting two retirement checks. One from GM and another form Toyota, Honda and Nissan.

  • avatar
    KatiePuckrik

    I agree with umterp85. The guy was utterly useless at his job, but he was no Joseph Stalin or Pol Pot!

    Let’s keep this in perspective, Ladies and Gentlemen!

    Timd38,

    Lol, that’s a funny joke, yet utterly believeable! (shudder)

  • avatar
    Blunozer

    Of course he’s no Stalin…

    When Stalin died, the USSR was still a superpower to be reckoned with.

    GM… Notsomuch.

  • avatar
    mikey

    24% of the market blunozer and still number one in the world.
    I don’t believe we should compare a CEO,that might of made some lousy calls to a mass muderer OK?

  • avatar
    taxman100

    Consider the times when he was CEO – while it is true that Chrysler had a dynamic CEO, GM built a much better vehicle. Ford was probably somewhere in the middle.

    Hindsight is always 20/20, but there is no way the UAW of the 1980’s would have signed off on what they did in 2007.

  • avatar
    supremebrougham

    When I was nine years old, my parents bought their first new car, a 1985 Buick Skylark, and as a young kid who was becoming obsessed with all things automotive, I thought it was a wonderful little car. I learned soon after that the X car (which is what our Skylark was) was being discontinued. I was so upset that I sat down and wrote a letter to GM extolling the virtues I found in that little car and demanded to know why they were killing it off! My aunt, who at the time worked at Hydra-Matic as a temp in the office, got it and sent it to Mr. Smith. I got a letter in the mail soon after from his I guess chief assistant saying that “Mr. Smith read your letter with great interest…” and thanked me for writing. He then went on to explain why the X was being killed, “…being phased out…”. But the best part was that to thank me for writing, Mr Smith had sent to me a lovely hard bound book that chronicled GM’s first 75 years. I later learned that that book was only available to GM employees.

    I wish I still had that letter, but despite my best efforts as a young boy to keep it, it somehow got lost over the years, but I still have that book.

    Mr. Smith may have been a lousy CEO, but he was kind to me. :)

  • avatar

    Why should the UAW have accepted the current concessions back in the 80’s taxman? It wasn’t their fault for the bad calls. GM was printing money and going on a spending spree (40 billion), even if they had worked for half pay GM would still be where they are today.

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