Dealers unfazed by Hyundai revolving door

Hyundai’s U.S. dealers, excited about fresh product, aren’t losing sleep about the changing faces at the top of the company.

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Hyundai dealer Scott Fink remembers encountering Yong-woo “William” Lee at a dealer council meeting and noticing there was something different about him.

“I’ve been on the dealer council for 15 years,” said Fink, who has two Hyundai stores in the Tampa, Fla., area. “He was the first Korean leader that took copious notes. And when the meeting was over, he reiterated the high points of the meetings after two and a half days.”

“That showed dealers this guy was serious,” Fink told Automotive News.

Fink and other dealers are looking to Lee — who became interim CEO at Hyundai Motor America last week and the ninth person since 1998 to hold the top spot — to provide a measure of stability that has long been absent in that role.

Lee: Many roles in 35-year span

And yet dealers say they’re not necessarily betting on Lee being their long-term leader, any more than they could on his many predecessors. They’re mindful of the company’s history and a corporate culture where no executive expects to stay in the same job very long.

Lee, 59, is a product of that merry-go-round, having served in many executive assignments over the course of a 35-year career at Hyundai, including roles in sales, marketing and parts, in South Korea and abroad.

He and future CEOs could have an easier path than his predecessors now that the automaker has created Hyundai Motor North America, a regional organization that includes Hyundai’s manufacturing hub in Alabama and three sales units: Hyundai Motor America, Hyundai Motor Canada and Hyundai Motor Mexico. The reorganization moves decisions on production closer to the market and could help end the long-running clash between lofty sales targets and production plans set in Korea and the limits of Hyundai’s typically car-heavy lineup and production capacity in the U.S. Lee now heads both the regional group and the U.S. arm.

But the appointment also puts Lee on the front lines for now of a budding safety crisis. Safety advocates have called for Hyundai to move more aggressively to address concerns about a potential risk of noncollision fires in certain crossovers and sedans, and lawmakers have invited the regional CEOs of Hyundai and Kia to appear Nov. 14 before the Senate Commerce Committee, the same panel that grilled Mary Barra over faulty ignition switches just weeks into her tenure as General Motors CEO.

Turning the corner

Lee takes over for Kenny Lee, who returned to Korea in an advisory role after serving for just over a year, a term during which he oversaw the U.S. launches of products such as the Kona crossover and redesigned Santa Fe.

Changing faces
William Lee, appointed interim CEO of Hyundai Motor America last week, is the ninth person to hold the position since 1998.

  • 1998-03: Finbarr O’Neill
  • 2004-06: Bob Cosmai
  • 2006-07: Ok Suk Koh
  • 2008: Jong Eun Kim
  • 2008-13: John Krafcik
  • 2014-16: Dave Zuchowski
  • 2016-17: Jerry Flannery*
  • 2017-18: Kyung Soo “Kenny” Lee
  • 2018: Yong-woo “William” Lee*

Source: Hyundai Motor America

*Interim CEO

The crossover infusion is helping the brand turn the corner in the second half of the year, and reduce its reliance on fleet sales to hit volume targets. The brand’s U.S. sales were up 2.8 percent in October, on an 8 percent gain in retail sales, Hyundai said.

Hyundai’s dealers, excited about the fresh product, aren’t losing sleep about the changing faces at the top.

Rick Case, who owns five Hyundai dealerships in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, said Hyundai’s habit of rotating CEOs hasn’t affected his confidence in the company.

He said he’s had dinner with William Lee before and described him as a “brilliant car guy.”

Doug Wilson, who owns two Hyundai stores in Mississippi, said he understands that Korea has a high-performance culture, where companies feel they have to change their leaders to improve results. Wilson said he’d be more concerned if the company tolerated mediocrity.

Par for the course

“As a dealer, I rely on them to build cutting-edge products with great safety, great fuel economy, great quality and great warranty,” Wilson said. “I don’t feel like it’s my business who they put in as their top person. Nobody stays there for a long time, whether they’re Korean or American.”

The continual churn at the top might seem to outsiders like a sign of turmoil, but it’s normal for Korean corporations, says one former auto executive who’s familiar with the inner workings of Hyundai Motor Group. At a Korean corporation such as Hyundai, the family owners can stick around for a long time, but nonfamily C-suite execs typically don’t hold those spots for more than four to five years.

“I think Hyundai’s success matters less about the longevity of the CEO of Hyundai Motor America, and matters much more on product mix and alignment with sales and production targets,” the former executive said. “There’s too much emphasis placed on the revolving door at the top of Hyundai Motor America.”

Hyundai routinely shuffles executives toward the end of the year, promoting some while demoting others to affiliates such as its Hyundai Mobis Parts operation. After years of cycling through different positions, the Korean execs build a broad knowledge base that meshes with Hyundai’s preference for having generalists at the top.

William Lee fits that bill. He recently assumed leadership of the new North America unit, which Hyundai says will provide “greater integration across the entire region to actively respond to evolving market trends and customer needs.”

Before that, he headed Hyundai Motor Brazil and also led international sales at Hyundai Motor Co. in Seoul.

He’s also familiar with the U.S., having led the creation of ad agency Innocean USA in 2009 and run overseas sales for Hyundai Mobis Parts, which is based in San Francisco.

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