NEW ORLEANS -- As Dave Zuchowski greeted well-wishers at a star-studded industry party here last week, Toyota stalwart Bob Carter stepped up to congratulate the new CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
After Carter introduced Zuchowski to Kazuo Ohara, head of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, and then cracked a couple of jokes, the executives became absorbed in a lively conversation about fuel cell vehicles.
It was a merry moment, the kind played out several times during the National Automobile Dealers Association convention as new U.S. chiefs at Hyundai, Volkswagen, Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover and Mini arrived in New Orleans, along with new national sales bosses at Chevrolet and Chrysler.
But the new crop of top execs has its work cut out. Dealers wanted to hear new strategies for struggling brands, and they wanted to take the measure of the men.
In his first major speech to a U.S. dealer body, Michael Horn, recently named CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, unveiled a new sales and marketing strategy. (See story, Page 3.)
The 51-year-old German stood in the doorway shaking hands with U.S. dealers before VW's make meeting, but many dealers did not know who he was -- and walked right past him.
Inside, he made a good first impression. Dealers gave him a round of applause that could be heard from outside the room. Even hardened critics of Volkswagen's dealer policies said they were impressed.
"It went fabulous," Wade Walker, president of Walker Motors in Montpelier, Vt., said after the meeting. "I've got to tell you: I've only been around Michael Horn three meetings, and I am so impressed by this man. This man has the pulse of the United States, and he knows Germany."
Zuchowski, 55, already is tight with his dealers. He spent eight years as U.S. sales boss before replacing John Krafcik as CEO in December. Hyundai's sales were flat in 2013, but Mike Stedem, a dealer from Slidell, La., says: "There's a great deal of dealer confidence in Dave. We were Ford dealers for 54 years, and the connectivity with this company is just phenomenal."
Zuchowski felt no dealer wrath at the make meeting.
"These meetings are always kind of touchy when you start out the beginning of a new model year, especially when you're coming off some loss in sales volume," said John St. George, general manager of Eastern Shore Hyundai in Daphne, Ala. "But it was all upbeat. Everybody's positive and excited about having Mr. Zuchowski as the head."
St. George echoed Zuchowski's desire to rebuild lost market share, saying dealers need more incentives to sell down a glut of 2013 model vehicles.
Joe Eberhardt, 50, who was named president of Jaguar Land Rover North America in December, appeared at his first NADA convention as a factory executive since he ran Chrysler's North American sales operation in 2006. In those days Eberhardt clashed with dealers, but he got off on the right foot last week.
"He was warmly received by the dealer body," said Michael Levitan, chairman of the Jaguar Land Rover Retailer Cabinet and owner of two Jaguar-Land Rover stores on Long Island in New York. "He spoke for 15 minutes -- an overview of where he has been and about the business, a commitment to Jaguar Land Rover, and from a retailer's perspective."
Like Zuchowski, Volvo Cars of North America CEO Tony Nicolosi, 53, is a familiar face for dealers. He has been with Volvo for 26 years, most recently as head of Volvo Car Financial Services U.S.
He was amped for his first NADA convention as boss, but already has close ties to the retailers. "I've been to some of their kids' communions," he said.
At the make meeting, he rolled out a facilities improvement program that will pay dealers who renovate as much as $500 per car sold for up to three years.
"This is the start of our transformation," said Nicolosi the morning after meeting dealers in New Orleans.
Jeff Kommor, 52, named Chrysler Group's new head of U.S. sales last month, had run the company's Northeast region. Last week he pressed the flesh with dealers from other locales, and got an endorsement from some of the retailers who already know him.
"He's a wizard at moving the metal," said Dave Kelleher, former Chrysler National Dealer Council chairman and owner of David Dodge in suburban Philadelphia.
David Duncan, who became Mini's top executive for the Americas just days before the convention, seemed comfortable with the brand's easy, breezy culture. He turned up at the make meeting in a black pullover with a Mini logo.
Several dealers who attended Chevrolet's make meeting noticed a sharper tone from factory executives when discussing the competition -- particularly from Steve Hill, 53, who was installed last month as General Motors' U.S. sales chief.
"His message was that this is gut check time," says the general manager of one East Coast Chevy dealership.
"He was really adamant about the need for us to grab some market share."
The backdrop to the meeting: Despite an infusion of fresh product in 2013, Chevy's market share slipped to 12.5 percent, from 12.8 percent, while Ford gained a half percentage point, rising to 15.4 percent.
In particular, sales of Ford's F series grew faster than those of the redesigned Chevy Silverado, which was launched last summer. Chevy dealers have complained that Ford offered heavy discounts to blunt Chevy's launch.
At the meeting, Hill "came off as very decisive and no BS. He was all about selling trucks," said a Chevy dealer from a Gulf Coast state. "Ford really punched Chevy in the nose when it came out with the new truck. I think Steve Hill wants to fix that problem."
Ryan Beene, Mike Colias, Diana T. Kurylko , Gabe Nelson and Larry P. Vellequette contributed to this report.