F. James McDonald was a Saginaw native who worked his way to the top of the biggest automaker in the United States, serving as president and chief operating officer of General Motors from 1981-1987.
Born in Saginaw on August 3, 1922, the second son of dentist and Saginaw mayor Dr. Francis and Mary Fordney McDonald, Jim attended St. Andrews through high school where he excelled at hockey and football. He was also a Saginaw News delivery boy.
He attended the GM Institute (now Kettering University) as a co-op student. After graduation, he served in WW II as a Navy submarine operator. In 1946, he returned to Malleable Iron Division Foundry as an hourly employee, making a name for himself as an innovator by designing a new conveyor belt.
Nine years later, he was named manager of one of General Motors’ largest foundries in Defiance Ohio. He continued to rise steadily, succeeding flamboyant designer John Z. DeLorean twice, first as manager of Chevrolet division and later of the Pontiac division.
McDonald was named GM president in 1981, one year after the company had lost $703 million and the nation was hit with one of the worst recessions in its history. By the end of his six-year tenure, GM was at the top of the Fortune 500 with revenues above $102 billion. According to GM, McDonald made improving quality a top priority and opened a dialogue with UAW leaders that eventually led to the UAW Gold Quality Network which involved both plant and union leadership working together to improve product quality and customer satisfaction, an approach which continued long after his retirement.
McDonald, a traditionalist, responsible for day-to-day manufacturing operations, often disagreed – albeit diplomatically- with chairman Roger Smith whose ambitious and controversial attempts to modernize GM during the 1980s, unlike Ford and Chrysler’s cost-cutting, did not keep GM’s market share from plunging.
After retiring at the company’s mandatory retirement age of 65, McDonald served on the boards of some of the country’s largest companies, including Georgia-Pacific, KMart, and H.J. Heinz.
When asked upon retirement what he might have done differently at GM, McDonald betrayed his nuts-and-bolts background. He pointed to the design of the 1985 Cadillac whose sales had been disappointing, and said he “would have made the Eldorado seven inches longer”.
He and his wife Betty were married over 60 years and together raised four children. He left a personal memoir for his family, entitled “If I Had It To Do all Over Again, I Would”.
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