Ahn’s secret mission is linked to new factory

LOS ANGELES — B.H. Ahn, president of Kia Motors America Inc. since 1998 and the engineer of its rocket-like takeoff in the U.S. market, will leave to head an unspecified “special project” in North America for the parent Hyundai Automotive Group, the company said last week.

Spokesmen for Hyundai and Kia refused to disclose specifics of the project, but industry observers agreed that Ahn almost certainly has been given responsibility for building the group’s much-talked-about U.S. plant. Ahn will remain based in Irvine, Calif., Kia said.

J.H. Lee, 52, will replace Ahn atop Kia’s U.S. sales operations, Kia said.

Lee has been CEO of Hyundai Auto Canada for the past five years, based in suburban Toronto. Previously, he had been vice president of Hyundai Motor America from 1994 to 1996.

Lee will be succeeded by Canadian Steve Kelleher, Hyundai Auto Canada’s vice president of sales, marketing, parts and service.

Kia also promoted executive vice president Peter Butterfield. Butterfield, who on Nov. 1 filled the position vacated when Dick Macedo retired in April, will become COO.

Under Ahn, who headed Kia’s U.S. operations for three years, the company’s sales have risen from 82,893 units in 1998 to more than 200,000 through 11 months of this year. Sales have been bolstered by Kia’s 10-year/100,000-mile warranty. Also, Kia’s lineup has grown from two models to eight.

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