John G. Smale, a self-effacing but tenacious executive whose brand-management savvy led him to the top of consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble before becoming chairman of General Motors and spearheading efforts to halt its slide toward bankruptcy, died Saturday at his home in Cincinnati. He was 84.
The cause was complications from pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, said Paul Fox, a Procter & Gamble spokesman.
Smale served as P&G's chief executive officer from 1981 to 1990 in a career that spanned 43 years at the Cincinnati-based company. Under his leadership, Procter & Gamble entered 23 new countries, added 15 business categories and doubled annual sales, to $23.5 billion.
FOR THE RECORD:
John Smale: In the Nov. 22 LATExtra section, the headline on the obituary on executive John Smale, who worked as an executive with Procter & Gamble and General Motors, misspelled the name of the consumer products giant as Proctor & Gamble. —
He had joined the company as an assistant brand manager in 1952, three years after earning a bachelor's degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He quickly ascended the corporate ladder, earning a reputation for his dogged approach to driving up sales in the toilet goods and soap products division.
One of his products was Crest toothpaste. According to company lore, he attended dental association meetings on his own time, an investment that paid off on Aug. 1, 1960 — Smale's 33rd birthday — when the American Dental Assn. endorsed Crest as an effective cavity fighter and gave P&G permission to use its endorsement in advertising. Sales of Crest exploded.
Smale became P&G president in 1974, chief executive in 1981 and chairman in 1986.
He is credited with expanding P&G's international operations and directing it into new product areas, including cosmetics, healthcare and soft drinks.
"The one thing that distinguishes John's career as the leader of our company has been his remarkable record as an agent for change," said Edwin Artzt, who succeeded Smale as chief executive of the company, which earned revenues of $82.6 billion in its latest fiscal year.
In 1982, as he was leading P&G, Smale joined the board of Detroit-based GM. When the automaker suffered a financial crisis in the early 1990s, he took a more aggressive role, introducing corporate-governance rules that put GM management on notice that the board was no longer going to just be a rubber stamp.
Among the changes was requiring managers to provide relevant information long before board members are scheduled to meet, not on the day of the meeting, as had been common practice. Senior managers were also required to make themselves available to answer questions before the meetings. Smale became known for asking the toughest questions.
In 1992, Smale led the boardroom coup to oust Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Stempel and remove Stempel's handpicked president, Lloyd Reuss, from that job. GM lost about $24 billion that year and $4.5 billion the prior year. The automaker was on the verge of bankruptcy.
Smale took over as chairman — GM's first outside chairman since the 1930s — and made John F. Smith, who had successfully run GM's European business, the new chief executive.
As chairman, he pushed GM to pay more attention to marketing and adopt the brand management techniques that had helped him double revenue at P&G.
Under Smale and Smith's leadership, GM returned to profitability in 1993. GM then rode the SUV boom to prosperity for the rest of the decade. Smale retired as GM chairman in 1996. He chaired the executive committee until June 2000.
Smale, who was born on Aug. 1, 1927 in Listowel, Ontario, was married to Phyllis Weaver for 56 years, until her death in 2006. He is survived by their four children.