General Motors Corp. officials confirmed today that John G. Smale, former chairman and leader of a revolt that toppled GM's old management team in 1992, will retire from the company's board in May.
Smale, 72, had planned to step down several years ago as head of the board's executive committee, according to GM officials attending the annual meeting of the Specialty Equipment Market Association here. But the board, impressed with Smale's role in saving the company from possible financial ruin in the early 1990s, urged him to stay beyond his 70th birthday, which is the official retirement age for GM directors.
GM officials here and in New York played down speculation that John F. Smith Jr., who became chief executive of the company when Smale took over as chairman seven years ago, will leave GM when Smale retires. Smith succeeded Smale in 1996.
Smith, 61, speaking to reporters in Detroit, said he does not intend to head for the exits just yet. But he has handed most of the company's daily operations to G. Richard Wagoner Jr., 46, GM's current president and chief operating officer, and to Harry J. Pearce, 57, the company's vice chairman who is hailed by many GM insiders as a visionary who can bring prestige back to the GM label.
Pearce, a lawyer who has pushed GM to improve the quality and variety of its products and to be more responsive to its customers, had been regarded as Smith's successor. But Pearce has spent the past two years fighting leukemia.
Company sources said Smith likely will step down if Pearce and his doctors believe he can take over the chairman's job. "Smith and Smale want Pearce to have his shot," one GM official said.
In that scenario, Pearce would function as Smale did from November 1992 to January 1996, serving as chairman, laying the broad outlines for GM's future, trying to deal with problems such as the company's declining market share. He would not serve as the day-to-day operator of the company.
GM moved from near-bankruptcy in the 1990s to record earnings today.
But the company's market share, about 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States in the 1960s, stood at 29.7 percent for the first eight months of this year, according to research by the Autofacts Group of PricewaterhouseCoopers.
That failure partly stems from continued customer resistance to GM products, based on the public's memory of the company's poor product quality in the 1970s and much of the 1980s, according to industry analysts.
Some of the blame for GM's weakening market share also can be placed on the company's year-old Vehicle Ordering Management System, or VOMS. GM dealers nationwide, including those in the Washington metropolitan area, complain that VOMS bombed--resulting in critical shortages of high-demand trucks and surpluses of cars that can be sold only at discount.
GM's new $4 billion strategy to go after market share by establishing 770 factory stores nationwide will not work either, those dealers say.
It all means that ample problems will remain for anyone succeeding Smale and Smith, auto industry analysts and GM dealers say.