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Western Digital CEO Named to Head GSA : Leadership: General Services Administration nominee would be the first Republican in a top Clinton post.

March 30, 1993|DAVE LESHER and DEAN TAKAHASHI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Roger W. Johnson, the high-tech executive who jolted Orange County Republicans to endorse Democrat Bill Clinton in last year's presidential campaign, was named Monday to head the General Services Administration.

If he is confirmed by the Senate, Johnson, chief executive of Irvine-based Western Digital Corp., would become the first Republican to hold a top job in the Clinton Administration. White House officials hope that his experience as a corporate executive will bring a business-like approach and bipartisanship to one of the government's largest bureaucracies, which handles all non-military procurement and property management.

"Roger Johnson's skills as a business leader and strong commitment to government change will ensure that economy and efficiency are standard rule at the new GSA," Clinton said in a statement announcing the appointment.

Johnson's management skills certainly faced a severe test at Western Digital in 1990 and 1991, when the recession and a poorly timed technological transition caught the company off guard. The maker of computer disk drives and memory chips suffered a series of back-to-back quarterly losses before management cut costs and restructured the company's long-term debt.

Western Digital returned to profitability in mid-1992, in part because of an improvement in the disk drive industry. But Johnson will be leaving a company still in a precarious position because of a resurgence of price wars in the disk drive industry.

Phil Devin, a disk drive industry analyst at market researcher Dataquest Inc. in San Jose, said prices are falling as much as 15% during the current quarter. That compares to last year's pace of about 5% to 7% per quarter.

Devin warns that all industry players will be in danger of suffering losses if that rate of price cutting continues.

Still, he added: "The company is in as good condition as it's been for years, and Roger gets some of that credit."

A former General Electric Co. executive, Johnson, 58, joined Western Digital in 1982 when it had barely $25 million in sales. It has since grown to a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Western Digital's difficulties were one thing that brought Johnson and Clinton together at the start of the presidential campaign in 1991. Johnson was critical of President Bush's handling of the economy, and when the Democratic candidate saw Johnson quoted in a newspaper article, he called to suggest that Johnson consider his campaign.

Johnson's roots are in liberal politics. He was born during the Depression in Hartford, Conn., the son of an AFL-CIO union activist. But he said he turned to the Republican Party after the first time he paid taxes. Johnson, who said he has backed Democrats for some offices but always voted Republican in the presidential race until last year, did not endorse Clinton until after the Republican National Convention in August.

Johnson said in an interview Monday that he was attracted to Clinton because of his call to "reinvent government." He said he believes that Clinton selected him for the GSA assignment because he shares Clinton's ideas about the need for major change in government.

Johnson was not specific about his plans for the agency except to say that he first expects to "do a lot of listening" to GSA employees about the needs for change within the agency.

"I hope the result will be a drastic reinvention," he said. "But I hope most of that will come from the ideas of the people who are already there."

Part of the change Johnson said will be to shrink the agency's work force of about 20,000 employees and its annual budget of $10.4 billion. He said the agency is so big that much of it should be done without "too much pain."

Johnson's supporters and associates said Monday that they wished him well in his job, but they acknowledged that it will be a major task.

"The whole Administration is trying to focus on reinventing America and there is probably no department in the government that needs more reinventing than the General Services Administration," said Robert Nelson, an Orange County Republican political consultant who was the only GOP member of the Clinton transition team. "Roger Johnson immediately becomes both the largest property manager and largest purchasing agent in the world."

Times staff writer Robert L. Jackson in Washington contributed to this report.

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