LOS ANGELES - At some time or another, every ad agency creative genius frustrated with a client has muttered: 'If I ran the company, I'd show 'em how to do things right.'
Dick Macedo has walked through that looking glass.
Macedo had never worked for an automaker before joining Kia Motors America Inc. from ad agency Wells Rich Greene BDDP/West in 1993. Now he's running the place, having been named in early April to replace Greg Warner as the Korean importer's chief American executive.
Warner died March 10 from a cardiac arrest triggered by an acute asthma attack.
After spending more than two decades in senior management with advertising agencies, the 57-year-old Macedo admits he has been on a steep learning curve in the auto business. Not only does he have to learn how to run a car company, but he also has to consider the possibility that the Korean parent company, now in receivership, might be sold out from under him.
But since he can't do much about the latter, he pours himself into learning the nuts and bolts of retailing cars and trucks.
'The hardest part is understanding the subtleties of retail. I go home every night with a list of things I don't know,' said Macedo, who carries the title of vice president of sales and marketing.
So Macedo makes decisions based on one criterion: Does he think it will make the customer happy? Once a consensus is reached on how to do it, Macedo becomes hands-off and lets managers handle the details.
'A GOOD BOSS'
Macedo's boss, Kia Motors America President W.K. Kim, said there was never a doubt that Macedo would get the job. Nor was there a thought of bringing in someone from outside the company.
'Dick received a unanimous recommendation for the job from the dealers and the Kia employees,' Kim said. 'It's too short a time to evaluate his performance, but so far so good. He's a good boss.'
Unlike career car-guy Warner, who often led meetings in the direction he felt was proper, Macedo is taking a 'leadership by committee' stance. What makes that easy is that the American executive corps has been in place since the franchise started five years ago.
'No individual is trying to win. It takes a little longer, but it works better because everyone feels like he's contributing and wants to come to work every day,' Macedo said.
Everyone misses Warner's sense of strategic thinking, said Lee Sawyer, Kia's executive director of service.
'Greg was a product-planning visionary. He knew and felt which direction product was going, and things like which accessories should be port-installed and dealer-installed,' Sawyer said.
'That takes time to learn, hundreds of meetings. And we're missing some of that now.'
Macedo is mulling the creation of a marketing planning committee to handle such issues.
What is important to Macedo? Customer satisfaction and dealer profit, he says. About 70 percent of Kia stores are in the black, but that's not high enough for Macedo.
'We're telling dealers, 'Tell us how many cars you need to sell to make money, and we'll do everything we can to make that happen,'' Macedo said.
That includes bringing out new product, despite Kia's cash-strapped status.
A two-door Sportage arrives this month. A basic small-car entry in four- and five-door variants with a 1.4-liter engine arrives in fall 1999. The Sedona minivan, with twin rear sliding doors, debuts in early 2000. And the sporty Elan convertible is still a maybe for America.
The only product in serious doubt is the Credos mid-sized sedan.
'The mid-size market is nuts, and I'm not sure we can be competitive with Accord and Camry on content and pricing. Unless you have a clean differentiation, you have to be cautious. Yes, we want that volume, but it's a risky segment to enter,' Macedo said.
Filling in the rest of the United States is also high on the list. From 38 states and 380 dealers now, Kia should have 500 dealers in the contiguous 48 states by year's end.
'A lot of this is keeping on doing what we're doing: product improvements, good distribution process, competitive pricing, available parts, terrific marketing. We're going to reassess our representation in our early markets, but that's about it,' Macedo said.
Kia sold 55,325 units last year, up 52.5 percent as it expanded across the United States. Reflecting its continuing expansion, sales through March were up 136.2 percent from 1997's first quarter.
Macedo also knows the challenge in improving CSI. 'When you're a small player, you have to spend money on marketing because you have to sell the cars to make money, so service sometimes suffers. But you have to do both,' Macedo said.
THE KOREAN QUESTION
Macedo seems remarkably calm about the possibility of parent Kia Motors Ltd., now in receivership, being sold to pay off its creditors. 'I'm not worried about it,' he insisted.
'There's a lot of posturing going on, and it's a hot political potato, which means we have some value. When there's that much action, it means we're going to stick around in one form or another,' Macedo added.
What happens if Hyundai Motor Corp. - Korea's dominant automaker - or another suitor were to buy Kia? Wouldn't it make sense just to absorb the product and remove the Kia brand from the market?
'It would be stupid to dissolve Kia. We're outselling Hyundai in all the markets we compete with them. Plus, all those dealer investments are involved. It might be one company but two brands,' Macedo said.
Macedo is echoed by his boss, Kim, who thinks Ford Motor Co. is a much more likely prospect than Hyundai. He sees Ford bringing Kia into the fold and treating it similarly to its Mazda and Jaguar affiliates, while using Kia's Asian connections to expand its operations abroad.
Ford and Mazda already own a combined 17 percent of Kia.
'There is some possibility for Kia to survive independently. But Ford also is positively reviewing its relationship with Kia,' Kim said.
'I don't think Hyundai will be allowed to buy Kia, because then they alone would have 2.5 million units of capacity, and that's too much.'