Commentary

John G. Smale, 84, Had Huge Impact At P&G, GM

John G. Smale, who became the seventh CEO of Procter & Gamble in 1981 and was later credited with an early save of General Motors as its activist chairman, died Saturday from complications of pulmonary fibrosis. He was 84 and a native of Listowel, Ont., who grew up in Elmhurst, Ill.

Widely acknowledged as a great leader, Smale earned his stripes at P&G by convincing the American Dental Association to put its seal on Crest toothpaste -- "Look, Mom, no cavities!" –- a marketing coup that vaulted the brand into prominence in the 1960s, eventually overtaking Colgate as the best-selling brand in the U.S. Smale was assigned to P&G toilet goods division after responding to a newspaper ad for brand managers in 1952. He first worked with Gleem toothpaste.

"John was the single most inspiring leader I have ever known. Period," John Pepper, P&G’s CEO from 1995 to 1999, tells Reuters’ Joe Wessels. “The man's character was defined by all the things character is defined by: his wisdom, his courage, his persistent commitment to doing what's right for the longer term -- absolutely right down the line. Never compromising."

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“He represented the soul of the company: Purpose-inspired, caring yet demanding, principled, and humble,” CEO Robert A. McDonald says in a statement on the P&G website.

"The one thing that distinguishes John’s career as the leader of our company has been his remarkable record as an agent for change," says Ed Ardtz, who succeeded Smale as CEO.

Smale is the man responsible for the vaunted category-management system “in which general managers over multiple brands would begin to take precedence over the company's legendary brand managers,” reports Jack Neff in Ad Age. “He stepped up global expansion. And he undertook a series of deals, the most crucial of which was the 1985 acquisition of Richardson-Vicks, which would form the foundation of P&G's beauty business, bringing in such brands as Olay, Pantene, and Vidal Sassoon.”

He was also responsible for acquiring Norwich Eaton in 1982, which was P&G’s entry in to pharmaceuticals.

Under Smale, the company “revamped its marketing and began working more closely with retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores to improve store inventories and promotions of P&G products,” the AP’s Dan Sewell reports. “Over his nine-year tenure, Procter & Gamble’s overall revenue doubled to more than $24 billion and profits doubled to $1.6 billion,” writes Peter Lattman in the New York Times.

That’s not to say that everything Smale touched turned to black ink.

 “There were missteps, including a failed push into soft drinks and orange juice,” Lattman reports. Also, “he ballyhooed Olestra, the fat substitute P&G scientists patented but that failed to catch on with consumers,” reports Stephen Miller in the Wall Street Journal. “When rumors flew in the mid-1980s that P&G's crescent-moon logo was somehow linked to Satanism, the company reluctantly removed it from products.

As a member of the board of GM, Smale led a coup in 1992 that resulted in the resignation of CEO Robert Stempel and the ascension of John F. Smith, Jr. Smale became chairman, overseeing the auto giant's return to profitability.

“His leadership was credited with leading a trend toward increased board activism in troubled companies,” Miller writes. At the board’s request, he remained for five years past GM's stated retirement age of 70.

By all accounts, Smale’s wife Phyllis [Weaver], who died in 2006, was an extraordinary woman of a different era. She attended Western College in Oxford, Ohio, when Smale was at Miami University in the same town and the two married in 1950. They had four children.

"I was so comfortable in my relationship with Phyllis, and so at ease there was no tension," he said in a 2009 interview for his alma mater's Miamian magazine,” recounts the AP’s Sewell. "The home life was totally supportive. I don't know what life would have been had I not had her."

So supportive, in fact, that he was able to indulge his passion for fly fishing on his honeymoon, in fact. Smale donated $20 million to Cincinnati earlier this year to create the 45-acre Phyllis W. Smale Riverfront Park.

Smale was his fraternity’s social chairman and helped pay for his college education by writing two how-to “booklets” called “Party ’Em Up” and “Party ’Em Up Some More” that he marketed to all the fraternities and sororities in the country, the Miamian article reveals. They “listed different party themes and offered hosting tips.”

Generally, though, “Smale avoided interviews and described himself as ‘a dull guy,’” Miller writes. “But he liked fast cars and sometimes zipped around Cincinnati in a custom-made British Jensen hot rod.”

P&G is inviting reminiscences of Smale on its Facebook page.

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