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Did `outsider' find GM's bureaucracy too tough to crack?

The expected resignation of corporate-lawyer-turned-auto-executive Elmer Johnson from the upper ranks at General Motors Corporation is raising new questions about just how much internal dissent the nation's largest carmaker will tolerate. To some, Mr. Johnson's departure is a sign of further trouble for GM. Others, however, view it simply as the action of a petulant executive whose ambitious goals have been thwarted.

Johnson gave up a lucrative law practice in Chicago to join GM in 1983, where he has been an executive vice-president in charge of the automaker's huge legal staff. He has also been sitting on the company's board of directors.

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From the beginning, Johnson was placed on the corporate fast track in Detroit, and was often touted by ``those in the know'' as a strong candidate to succeed current General Motors chairman Roger Smith, who will retire in 1990.

Johnson's rapid ascendancy, bucking GM's normally closed hierarchy, rubbed many people the wrong way, however. Top GM executives have traditionally come up the ranks in a life-long career at the company.

Meanwhile, in recent months, Johnson's future opportunities at GM appeared to be fading, with current General Motors president Robert Stempel seen as the favorite to replace Mr. Smith.

Several GM officials - all asking to remain anonymous - claim they were not surprised by Johnson's imminent departure.

``He had a lack of automotive knowledge, and that hurt him,'' said one. ``He never had a shot at the chairmanship, and once he realized that, he probably figured there was no reason to stick around.''

David Cole, head of the Center for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, agrees that ``there probably was never any chance'' that Johnson would become chairman.

``I'm not sure he really came to GM to be chairman,'' adds Mr. Cole. ``I think he came in to breathe some fresh ideas into the organization.''

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Indeed, those who have watched Johnson's brief career at GM say he was constantly suggesting ways to change what has been described as a moribund, entrenched bureaucracy.

For one thing, Johnson has suggested GM link executive bonuses to union profit-sharing. For several years, workers have not received any profit-sharing payments because of GM's weakness in the United States auto market. At the same time, union members have been irked by the multi-million dollar bonuses paid many top executives.

Johnson further challenged the status quo - and reportedly made some enemies - by calling for the creation of a review board to monitor the performance of the automaker's top 500 executives who are eligible for bonuses.

Although Cole believes Johnson ``has succeeded in bringing fresh ideas to the 14th floor,'' where the offices of the automaker's top echelon are located in the General Motors building, not everyone agrees.

Unlike H.Ross Perot, the maverick Texas businessman who briefly sat on the GM board, and who made international headlines with his sharply-worded criticism of General Motors, Johnson ``played by the rules, and kept his comments out of the press,'' this source notes. ``But it became obvious to Elmer that the company won't change. It doesn't feel the need for change [at least if] it affects the way executives are handled.''

So far, GM spokesmen have refused comment about Johnson's impending departure. Johnson himself was unavailable for comment.

He is now expected to return Chicago and his old post at the law firm of Kirkland and Ellis.

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