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GM chief oversaw closings of factories

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Roger Smith, General Motors Corp.'s chairman during a decade when its U.S. market-share losses to Japanese rivals accelerated, poses in an undated company photo released to the media on Friday, Nov. 30, 2007. Smith died yesterday in Detroit after a brief illness. He was 82. Source: General Motors via Bloomberg News

VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS Enlarge

DETROIT - Roger B. Smith, who led General Motors Corp. in the 1980s and was the subject of Michael Moore's searing documentary Roger & Me, died Thursday, the automaker said. He was 82.

Mr. Smith died in the Detroit area after a brief illness that GM did not identify.

Mr. Smith was appointed chairman and chief executive on Jan. 1, 1981, and led the world's largest automaker until his retirement on July 31, 1990.

With Japanese automakers gaining momentum in the United States as Mr. Smith's tenure began, he responded with GM's first front-wheel-drive midsize cars.

He also formed a controversial joint venture with Toyota Motor Corp. to manufacture cars in California, created the Saturn small-car brand to fight the imports, and acquired Electronic Data Systems and Hughes Aircraft Corp.

"Roger Smith led GM during a period of tremendous innovation in the industry," Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said.

"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," Mr. Wagoner said.

Mr. Smith also served GM as an executive vice president and a member of the board of directors beginning in 1974.

Mr. Moore's fame grew with the 1989 film Roger & Me, which explored how GM's plant closings and layoffs affected his hometown of Flint.

Robert Stempel, who succeeded Mr. Smith as GM chairman and CEO, said Mr. Smith never was bothered by the movie.

"Those things, when you're a CEO, you learn to roll with the punches," Mr. Stempel said.

Mr. Stempel said Mr. Smith foresaw Japanese imports rising in the United States and fuel efficiency becoming a major issue.

Despite his efforts, GM's U.S. market share dropped from about 45 percent when Mr. Smith took GM's top job to just over 36 percent when he left. The company's market share currently is about 24 percent.

Mr. Smith was born in Columbus in 1925 and served in the Navy from 1944 to 1946.

His career at GM began in 1949 as an accounting clerk.

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