Lee (Henry Ford and the Jews, 1980) recently completed a three-year stint as an executive speech-writer at General Motors....


CALL ME ROGER: The Story of How Roger Smith, Chairman of General Motors, Transformed the Industry Leader into a Fallen Giant

Lee (Henry Ford and the Jews, 1980) recently completed a three-year stint as an executive speech-writer at General Motors. He has used his insider's knowledge, excellent contacts, and understanding of the auto industry to produce an immensely readable but oddly inconclusive critique of the incumbent chairman, Roger Bonham Smith. Smith (who turns 63 in July) joined GM as an accountant in 1949. Finding a fast track on the financial side of the business, he was elected CEO of the corporate colossus in 1980. To date, the notices on his stewardship have been mixed at best. Since Smith took the wheel, for example, the company's share of market has plummeted. GM has also become Detroit's highest-cost and lowest-quality car maker. In the meantime, Smith has encountered rough going in his efforts to convert GM into an ultrahigh-tech enterprise via acquisitions (Electronic Data Systems, Hughes Aircraft, et al.) and internal-development programs like the multibillion-dollar Saturn project designed to challenge Japanese imports. Here, Lee's bill of particulars against Smith is as lengthy as it is detailed. He also has a white-knight foil for his decent and dedicated but distant subject--Ross Perot, the charismatic founder of EDS who was paid over $700 million to quit the GM board. Throughout his absorbing text, however, Lee remains discernibly ambivalent. On the one hand, he has grudging admiration for the depth and breadth of Smith's visionary aspirations, i.e., to create a wholly new company geared to the 21st century's global competition. On the other, Lee is justifiably appalled by the man's lack of sensitivity to human factors, which has led to such gaffes as managerial bonuses in the midst of plant-level layoffs. Nor does the author play completely fair in his account of Perot's career, which includes a costly, ultimately abortive, and overlooked attempt to rescue a foundering Wall Street brokerage during the early 1970's. On a bottom-line basis, Lee does not quite have the courage of his tacit conviction that the payoffs on Smith's high-stakes gamble may prove meager indeed. Few readers will care, though, since he keeps his savvy narrative moving along at a heady pace.

Pub Date: April 1, 1988


Page Count: -

Publisher: Contemporary

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1988