John G. Smale: My First Boss

John G. Smale, former CEO of Procter & Gamble and Chairman of GM, passed away earlier this week at the age of 84. He was one of the ‘Captains of American Industry.’


John was the CEO of P&G during my tenure there in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s. Being a rather lowly Brand Manager in Canada (a seemingly distant outpost of the P&G empire) meant that there were at least four or five levels of management between us. Nevertheless, this made him technically my first boss.

Mention of John was done part in reverence and part in fear for your career. John never came to Canada, or if he did, there was no way that us marketing folks ‘in the bullpen’ would ever see him, let alone get an opportunity to meet him. This hypothesis was soon to be proven incorrect.

My relationship with him was short: a total of no more than five minutes. My position at the time was that of Crest Brand Manager. Crest Toothpaste was one of the flagship products, the others being Tide and Pampers. By flagship, I mean a brand with some bearing on the bottom line of the Canadian operations, although we were never exactly privy to comparative figures.

For John’s 1981 trip to Canada (I seem to recall winter), the three flagship brands were each going to make a presentation to the big guy. My presentation was on a ‘Buy Two, Get One Free’ promotion pack that we had come up with here in Canada. Recently completed, the results of this promotion were a record market share and shipments.

As you could well imagine, rehearsals for this short presentation were extensive, with continuous rewrites each time the presentation was made up the Canadian ladder. And with each rewrite, the goals of what I wanted to communicate kept on getting diluted, with additional points on profitability, technical issues, etc.

The day of the presentation, in my best blue suit, I waited in my office to be called up to the 21st floor boardroom. I was supposed to be on at 4 PM. I waited. 4:30 PM, then 5 PM, then 5:30 PM rolled around, with no call from upstairs. Afraid to leave to go to the bathroom, I was stuck in my office. By 6 PM most staff had cleared out.

At about 6:15 PM, I got the call. I was told the obvious: they were running late so I had better be quick. Instead of ten minutes, I now had five. I was told, cut the presentation and get to the most salient points quickly.

I nervously waited outside, thinking about what indeed was the most salient point. Was it profitability? Was it the 50%+ plus market share  – the first time Crest had broken this barrier? Was it the record monthly volumes? Was it the ease of manufacture with new equipment purchased for the promotion? Was it the parallel consumer research study results? Was it the sales feedback? Going up the elevator, my head was spinning.

My time had come. The first words were not spoken by me, nor by my associate advertising manager (immediate boss), nor his boss, but rather, by John himself. Imagine, he had been sitting in this meeting room for a full day, taking countless briefs and presentations. He stood up to shake my hand and his first words were, “Larry, I was Crest Brand Manager some twenty years ago, and my dream was a 50 share. Congratulations, you accomplished something I could never do myself. Well done.”

I can’t really remember what I said, or what transpired after that. All I recall is that here was a leader of a multi-billion dollar company that made me feel as if he cared about me and my business. His enthusiasm, attention to detail, and commitment to success set standards that are hard to beat.

John, you will be missed.
-Larry Mogelonsky

Larry MogelonskyJohn G. Smale: My First Boss