F. James McDonald, 87, a General Motors engineer who became the president and chief operating officer of the American car giant during the 1980s as it fought to maintain its footing under pressure from Japanese competitors, died May 13 of cancer at a hospice in Vero Beach, Fla.
McDonald was president of GM from 1981 until 1987 under chairman and chief executive Roger Smith, who was the more recognizable of the company’s leaders after the release of Michael Moore’s 1989 documentary “Roger & Me.” McDonald said he preferred factory visits to public appearances and remained largely unknown outside the company.
McDonald’s tenure was a period in which GM — once known for its stylish Cadillacs and Pontiac GTO muscle cars — came under fire for producing look-alike automobiles that had lost their distinctive personalities.
As Ford and Chrysler cut costs to stay competitive with inexpensive Japanese imports, GM spent tens of billions of dollars on high-tech manufacturing plants, equipment and controversial acquisitions of businesses including Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company started by Texas businessman H. Ross Perot.
Those decisions were driven by Smith, whose ambitious and controversial attempts to modernize GM during the 1980s did not keep the company’s market share from plunging.
McDonald, a traditionalist who was responsible for day-to-day manufacturing operations, often disagreed with the direction in which Smith pushed the company, said Bill Hoglund, former manager of GM’s Pontiac division and a past president of Saturn, a subsidiary of GM established during the 1980s to make smaller cars in response to Japanese competition.
In public, McDonald spoke diplomatically about Smith, who continued as chairman until 1990. “I hope that we were different in approach and nature, because that’s good for the organization,” McDonald told The Wall Street Journal in 1987. “You can be vociferous and loud in your deliberations, but the key is to keep it in the family.”
One of McDonald’s most important contributions was helping to oversee a massive 1984 reorganization in which GM consolidated its five car-making divisions into two, Hoglund said. The move was meant to streamline production, but it led to more layers of management and other problems, and production came to a near-halt for months while job responsibilities were sorted out. According to Forbes magazine, the reorganization was largely dismantled in 1992 by then-president John F. “Jack” Smith Jr.
Francis James McDonald was born Aug. 3, 1922, to an Irish Catholic family in Saginaw, Mich. He attended the General Motors Institute in Flint, Mich., now Kettering University, where he alternated between four-week stints working in a foundry and taking engineering classes.
After graduating, he served in World War II as a Navy submarine engineer. In 1946, he returned to a GM foundry in Michigan, where he began to make a name for himself as an innovator by designing a new conveyor belt.
Nine years later, he was named manager of one of the company’s largest foundries, in Defiance, Ohio. He continued to rise steadily, succeeding flamboyant car designer John Z. DeLorean twice, first as manager of Chevrolet and then Pontiac. He became a member of the company’s board of directors in 1974.
McDonald left GM when he reached 65, the company’s mandatory retirement age. He continued to serve on the boards of some of the country’s largest companies, including Georgia-Pacific, KMart, H.J. Heinz and Halliburton.
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Betty Dettenthaler McDonald, of Vero Beach, Fla.; three children; two brothers; seven grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.