JASON STEIN

Krafcik's back: Many projects, scads of ideas

COMMENTARY
Jason Stein is editor and publisher of Automotive News.
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Somewhere between a conversation on the future of retailing and the excitement over meeting a big investor for a lunch in Century City, John Krafcik has discovered something incongruous in the way the world works.

"Do you notice that as we talk about increased connectivity in the car, we are also talking about being less connected with the car?" Krafcik asks through a phone line. "Connectivity and autonomy. Sounds like those are at odds with each other, hey?"

He lets out a laugh and keeps rolling.

Welcome back, John Krafcik.

And so here is where we find the 52-year-old former Ford and Hyundai executive these days: Heading north at 11:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning, weaving his way in and out of Los Angeles traffic.

His left foot feels like it's going to fall off thanks to the clutch on his 8-year-old bright yellow Porsche 911.

The man whose MIT team helped research the landmark 1990 book The Machine That Changed The World (he invented the term "lean production") is guiding his own six-speed machine on the 405 freeway -- and his world feels a little different.

"I wish I would have bought the PDK [automatic] transmission in the Porsche," says Krafcik, who for five years found himself in factory cars courtesy of Hyundai. "I'm just not used to driving these kinds of cars anymore."

Catching up with Krafcik is a window into a world of many new things for the former Hyundai Motor America CEO -- a guy who has been so far off the radar the past four months you couldn't be blamed for forgetting his name.

John Krafcik says his hiatus from the industry was “fun, stimulating and completely different.”

"I chose to step away for a while," he says. "I had to step back and assess what I wanted to do."

And what is he doing?

Everything.

He describes his days as more chaotic and challenging than even his hairiest days at Hyundai where he had a one-page business plan with three key objectives and four key pillars.

"It was a focused environment," he says, "with a big team and one exclusive company to bring to life."

Today?

He's working on every project he can get his hands on, "and I have 1,000 more ideas," he says. "I have a huge appetite for doing things, which makes things less manageable and more chaotic. There's so much disorder and dysfunction."

Word within the industry is that virtually every car company has asked for his help (Krafcik wouldn't say who has contacted him; he's signed many nondisclosure agreements). He joined TrueCar Inc.'s board of directors this month and is helping to position the car-buying site to better assist its 7,500 participating franchises.

He wants to increase transparency for TrueCar dealers, including greater visibility into document fees, and he wants to help TrueCar expand into the app world.

"I have a homework assignment for you," he says. "Download the TrueCar app and see how it works. The power of it is one of the things that sold me on the company and where it can be positioned with millennials."

New advertising is coming for TrueCar, he says, focused around "the joy of car ownership."

Mostly he wants to reduce the "friction" in the retail experience between consumers and dealers, strengthen relationships with automakers and TrueCar dealers, and develop training products for dealers.

He won't talk about the Hyundai situation or the abrupt departure late last year which, for a Hyundai exec, capped a historic run during which he helped steer the Hyundai brand to record U.S. sales and market share. He describes his recent time away as "fun, stimulating and completely different."

And it has afforded him the opportunity to reconnect with old friends such as Jim Womack, one of the co-authors of The Machine That Changed the World. Krafcik has connected Womack with Krafcik's alma mater, Stanford, in an attempt to bridge the industry, government and media to solve larger problems such as accident avoidance.

"I have one problem: I'm finding it hard to say no to anything," he says with another laugh.

And with that, he downshifts, says goodbye and is off to lunch with a billionaire investor in TrueCar.

Welcome back, Krafcik.

You can reach Jason Stein at jstein@crain.com. -- Follow Jason on Twitter


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