Retired General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger B. Smith often tells the story of how he persuaded another Smith, John F. (Jack) Jr., who assumed GM's top spot on Jan. 1, to join its financial staff.

It was during the early 1960s shortly after Jack had joined GM as a payroll auditor at a GM plant in Framingham, MA, near his hometown of Worchester.

"I'd heard great things about him," says Roger Smith, who was then GM's assistant treasurer, "and tried to get him to come to New York. But he wanted to stay in Framingham. Finally I went up there and talked him into coming down."

That was in 1966. By 1974 he had landed in Roger's old job -- assistant treasurer -- and moved quickly through increasingly responsible jobs on the financial side and ultimately general management.

Jack Smith's ride to the top is filled with major turning points. Having risen to corporate comptroller by 1980, he was already marked for bigger things. To grease the skids, GM promoted him to director of worldwide planning in 1982, where he led negotiations with Toyota Motor Corp. that resulted in establishing New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) as a 50/50 GM/Toyota venture in GM's Fremont, CA, plant.

I first met Jack during those days and found him to be a difficult interview. Unaccustomed to the media and unassuming by nature, he was clearly uncomfortable being grilled by an inquisitive reporter, replying politely with mostly yes and no answers -- not the meat I was trying to elicit. He's more relaxed these days.

NUMMI was a momentous deal and his reward was the top job at GM of Canada Ltd. in 1984, where he first gained operating experience. Then it was quickly up the ladder with stops as president of GM-Europe in 1987, responsibility for all GM International Operations a year later, vice chairman in 1990, president and COO in April 1992 and chief executive officer the following October.

Mr. Smith's broad overseas experience -- he turned GM of Europe from a perennial loser to a big moneymaker -- combined with his reputation as a financial whiz clearly marked him to reach the very top one day.

He may have had to wait awhile, however, if not for another major turning point. Although he certainly can't take full blame, GM's fortunes went from bad to worse after Robert C. Stempel succeeded Roger Smith as chairman in mid-1990. That year GM lost nearly $2 billion, another $4.5 billion in 1991 and was headed for a nearly $2.7 billion loss in 1992.

Alarmed about GM's plight, its board of directors led by former Procter & Gamble Co. Chairman John G. Smale, forced Mr. Stempel into retirement and installed Jack Smith as CEO. Mr. Smale remained as non-management chairman and becomes chairman of the board's new executive committee.

Since Jack Smith became CEO, GM's fortunes have reversed. Profits returned to nearly $2.5 billion in 1993, $4.9 billion in 1994 and hit $5.1 billion for the first nine months of 1995.

Part of that turnaround clearly reflects the industry's overall rebound, and in any case he'd be the last person to take all the credit. Privately congenial and witty, Jack Smith has come a long way from Framingham. And, at 57, he still has a long way to go at GM.