Roger Smith, so close and yet so far
In the pantheon of heroes at General Motors, Roger Smith, who died today at the age of 82, will not even be allowed admittance.
Which is unfortunate.
In many ways, Smith was ahead of his time, and behind it, too.
He invented Saturn, in an effort to create a GM counter to the Japanese. He created NUMI, in an effort to siphon off the best technology Toyota had.
He brought robots to the plant, in an effort to eliminate human frailty from the quality equation.
But he couldn’t sell cars. And he couldn’t read a balance sheet.
Thanks to Mr. Smith, GM almost went bankrupt, without even knowing it. He spent lavishly, but accounting controls were not part of his approach. He had a vision for the future, with out the slightest idea of how the present would pay for it.
And, he couldn’t sell cars.
Very possibly, Smith was the worst chief executive officer ever to run General Motors.
And, he was not very different from the current CEO, Rick Wagoner.
It’s just that his timing was wrong.
It was Smith that moved the company into Electronic Data Systems, that bought into a satellite television provider and that bought into Hughes. All of those investments made major profits for GM. Indeed, it was to offset the capital gain on the satellite TV unit that the current bosses at GM killed Oldsmobile. They got a free ride, rather than paying taxes.
Smith was not an idiot. He was the model for the current CEO of GM. Smith tried to deploy GM’s cash to other enterprises in the U.S. Now, GM tries to deploy them to other countries.
In the end, the legacy of Roger Smith is that he did not believe in the company that he headed, that he did not believe in its product or its people.
But, he is the father of the man that runs the show today.
For Mr. Wagoner is his clone.