John G. Smale, 65, former chairman of Procter & Gamble Co. TTC who has played a leading role in the management rupture at General Motors Corp., is known for having a voracious appetite for tackling thorny problems.
But amid speculation that he may take over as head of the troubled auto maker from Robert C. Stempel, who resigned yesterday as General Motors chairman and chief executive, are questions about whether Mr. Smale can make the leap from selling soap to selling cars.
At P&G;, the $27 billion maker of Tide detergent, Crest toothpaste, Pampers diapers and other consumer products, Mr. Smale is given credit for pushing through a restructuring that made managers more attuned to profits than to market share.
Mr. Smale also puts a high premium on market research and listening to customers, a practice almost unheard of for decades at GM, which used to dictate what types of cars Americans could buy.
"John Smale is a quintessential manager of any company that deals with consumers," said Gary Stibel, of the New England Consulting Group, a marketing firm in Westport, Conn.
Mr. Smale, described as a clear-headed, no-nonsense manager is known for quickly dealing with problems. Under Mr. Smale, P&G; was one of the first companies to cut back on phosphates in detergents after environmental concerns were raised. But among the doubts about Mr. Smale as the possible leader of GM is the fact that he has been on GM's board for much of the company's turbulent 1980s.
"Where's he been?" said one executive who used to work with him. "This isn't exactly a new problem."
Mr. Smale was born in Ontario, Canada, and educated at Miami University in Ohio. He joined P&G; in 1952 as an assistant brand manager for Gleem toothpaste.
But it was with Crest toothpaste that he first distinguished himself. In a marketing coup, Mr. Smale convinced the American Dental Association to endorse for the first time the cavity-fighting properties of a toothpaste. After that, Crest sales jumped dramatically.