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Roche, James Michael

Roche, James Michael

(b. 16 December 1906 in Elgin, Illinois; d. 6 June 2004 in Belleair, Florida), president and chairman of the board of General Motors Corporation (GM).

Roche was one of three sons of Thomas Edwin Roche, an undertaker, and Gertrude (Buel) Roche, a teacher. After his father died in the 1919 flu epidemic, the twelve-year-old Roche (rhymes with coach) went to work clerking in a notions store after school and mowing lawns on summer weekends to supplement his mother’s modest income. After graduation from Elgin High School in 1923, Roche found a clerical job working for a gas and electric utility company in Aurora, Illinois. Lacking the time and money for a formal college education, Roche took correspondence courses in business and accounting from LaSalle Extension Institute of Chicago from 1923 to 1925. After four years with the utility company, Roche joined the Chicago retail branch of the GM Cadillac Motor Car Division in September 1927 at the age of twenty-one. Beginning as a statistical researcher paid sixty cents an hour, Roche so impressed his superiors with his insightful analyses of operations and sales that he was made assistant to the branch manager after one year.

A quick mind, the willingness to work hard, and a desire to learn got Roche noticed at the corporate level. His name was entered in the GM black book, a loose-leaf binder with profiles of the 700 or so brightest employees in the company. Roche was selected to attend one of the triennial Greenbrier Group meetings in West Virginia, at which key managers discussed business issues in general and the automobile industry in particular. In 1933 Roche was transferred to New York City as the assistant eastern regional manager of the business management department of the Cadillac division. Two years later he was in Detroit managing the division’s national business department. Beset with wartime labor problems, Cadillac made Roche the head of its personnel department in 1943. Roche’s previous work experience at GM gave him in-depth knowledge of sales. His new job brought him in contact with all phases of production.

In 1950 Roche returned to the sales side of Cadillac operations as general sales manager. He revitalized the Cadillac dealer organization in the early 1950s, and sales increased sharply, to more than 100,000 cars per year for the first time in the history of the division. In recognition of his efforts, Roche in January 1957 was named the general manager of the Cadillac division and a vice president of GM. Three years later he moved from a division to a corporate leadership position, becoming vice president in charge of GM distribution. In September 1962, at the age of fifty-six, Roche saw his GM career shift yet again when he was appointed the executive vice president in charge of all overseas and Canadian operations. Before this assignment Roche had worked exclusively in GM’s domestic businesses.

Roche approached his new task in his characteristic manner, studying the European Common Market and the history and business conditions of the twenty-three countries in which GM was operating. Roche’s retooling paid handsome dividends for the company. In two short years GM’s overseas sales were more than 1.3 million vehicles, and its foreign market represented 13 percent of corporate net income. Impressed with Roche’s grasp and understanding of automobile production and personnel issues and his knowledge of international political and economic developments, the board of directors in June 1965 named Roche the president of GM. Just over two years later Roche became chairman of the board of GM. Roche had become head of an industrial complex with seventy plants in the United States and more than 700,000 employees supplying more than half of all the motor vehicles sold in America. Roche served as chairman until the end of 1971, when he reached the GM mandatory retirement age of 65.

In 1966 Roche received a singular honor when his portrait appeared on the cover of the weekly newsmagazine Time. Roche’s likeness was used to highlight the importance of the automobile industry, which at the time was considered a bellwether for the state of the American economy. Other tributes included ten honorary degrees from schools such as the College of the Holy Cross and Michigan State University.

As president and chief executive officer, Roche led GM during what can be considered the company’s golden era. His tenure, however, was not without difficulties, the principal one being the consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Nader’s book Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) challenged the safety of American vehicles, especially GM’s compact car the Corvair. The U.S. automobile industry responded to the book by trying to discredit its author. This effort included having private investigators follow Nader, question his acquaintances about matters such as Nader’s political leanings and sexual orientation, and, according to Nader, attempt to entrap him in compromising sexual situations with young female agents. Called in March 1966 to testify before a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating Nader’s charges, Roche defused much of the criticism building against GM when he candidly admitted that persons in the corporation, without Roche’s knowledge or consent, had hired private detectives to scrutinize Nader’s private life. “I deplore the kind of harassment to which Mr. Nader apparently has been subjected,” Roche told the subcommittee. “I hold myself responsible for any action authorized by any officer of the corporation.... I want to apologize here and now to members of this subcommittee and Mr. Nader.” This public apology doused what could have become a corporate conflagration.

In 1992 Roche was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. His citation noted that he had “successfully promoted equal opportunity employment within GM and in the American business community,” a clear reference to Roche’s 1971 nomination of the Reverend Leon H. Sullivan to the GM board of directors, making Sullivan one of the first African Americans to join a major corporate board. Roche also was cited for his many civic activities, including the creation of New Detroit, an organization dedicated to the city’s recovery following the race riots of 1968.

Roche’s personal life was as rich and varied as his corporate and community work. He married Louise McMillan on 5 October 1929. She died in 2001 after 71 years of marriage. The couple had three children, and at the time of his death on 6 June 2004 at home in Belleair, Florida, Roche was survived by twelve grandchildren and fifteen great-grandchildren. A devout Roman Catholic, Roche frequently attended daily mass. He is buried in Elgin.

For a detailed account of Roche’s life through 1966, see “Rattles in the Engine,” Time (20 May 1966); and “Roche, James M(ichael),” Current Biography (Feb. 1967): 38–40. Obituaries are in the Detroit News, New York Times (both 8 June 2004), and Automotive Intelligence News (9 June 2004).

James Cicarelli

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