LOS ANGELES -- In April, Wally Anderson, vice president of marketing for Kia Motors America Inc., fell ill and went into a coma for a month. He still is recovering.
The sudden illness came at an inopportune time for Kia. The Korean automaker was preparing to launch its redesigned Spectra and planning for the launch of the redesigned Sportage in the spring. Both crucial tasks are under Anderson's purview.
What is a company to do when a key person goes down? It cannot replace the executive because he or she could recover quickly and return to work. But neither can it neglect the work.
Top executives go absent just like other workers. There is vacation, jury duty or the flu. But when a key player is out of action, it causes a significant disruption - or worse.
Usually, superiors and subordinates pitch in until the executive returns or is replaced. But not always.
Tom Mignanelli, Nissan's U.S. sales chief, returned from heart surgery in 1993 to find his Japanese superiors wanted him gone. When Greg Warner, CEO of Kia Motors America, died in March 1998, Kia waited three months to replace him.
Dick Macedo, right, was elevated to the top position at Kia Motors America -- without the CEO title -- after Greg Warner, left, died of a heart attack
In an e-mail, Kia spokesman Kim Custer said the marketing communications department now reports to sales Vice President Phil Kelley. Anderson's product planning funnel now goes directly to CEO Peter Butterfield.
"Peter and Phil both work closely together to share information and major management decisions on these two areas of responsibility to ensure an ongoing, seamless coordination of Wally's portfolio," Custer said, declining further comment.
Terry Peterson, dealer principal of Reno (Nev.) Kia-Mazda, is on Kia's dealer marketing council. He says Kia has improvised well.
"We miss Wally because he has lots of good input," Peterson says. "But they have plenty of people helping out down there, holding us all together."
Caught off guard
When Kia's Warner died of cardiac arrest after an asthma attack, it caught the company off guard, without an adequate plan to replace him.
For nearly three months, Kia pondered a succession plan before elevating marketing Vice President Dick Macedo to the top position - albeit without the CEO title.
"The transition was relatively easy, because I had been with Kia since it had only 12 employees," says Macedo, who now is an independent consultant.
"But it was also a hard transition because of the circumstances of how I got the job," he says. "There was quite a bit of sadness in the organization for several months. But we also knew we had a lot of work to do."
While Macedo concentrated on marketing and dealer development, he gave more autonomy to Lee Sawyer in service and Jim Richert in parts.
"Those guys were two professionals who kept that aspect of the business under control," Macedo says. "It would have been presumptuous on my part to get deeply involved in that."
But it doesn't always work that way. For all the happy talk about corporate cooperation, some companies use an executive's absence as an opportunity to broom him.
When Tom Mignanelli went in for quadruple-bypass heart surgery in early 1993, the then-CEO of Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. had been battling his Japanese bosses over how to fix the struggling automaker.
But when he returned from surgery, Mignanelli awkwardly discovered that his bosses wanted him out. He resigned shortly thereafter and was replaced immediately by Bob Thomas.
Mignanelli, who lives in Hawaii, could not be reached for comment.
Some executive search firms, such as Korn/Ferry International of Los Angeles, have a stable of retired CEOs on retainer for just an emergency situation, says Don Spetner, Korn/Ferry vice president of marketing.
Spetner was Nissan's vice president of public relations in the early 1990s.
"These incidents reveal how well managed you are," he says. "The best-managed companies force their key executives to have successors identified and in grooming. With truly well-run companies, it's part of your annual review, especially at a senior level. You get dinged if you don't have a decent backup and process in place."
In Nissan's case, contingency plans were in place when Rick Lafferty and members of his family were attacked by muggers in California's Napa Valley.
In the 1995 attack, Lafferty suffered multiple stab wounds. The Pathfinder model line manager was in intensive care for a week and recovering in the hospital for four weeks after that. The doctors weren't going to clear him for work for three months.
This posed a major problem for Nissan, which was in the midst of the launch for the redesigned Pathfinder, delayed because of engine quality problems.
Now president of parts maker HKS U.S.A. in Los Angeles, Lafferty recalls how Nissan Division General Manager Tom Eastwood contacted Lafferty's wife and assured her that Rick would still have a job when he was healthy. Product planning boss Jack Collins also was quick with reassurance.
"I was in my own gray world for a week," Lafferty says. "When you are there in a hospital bed, you got a lot of things to think about, and your future business career is one of them. My best memory of Nissan was how I was treated during my recovery."
Nissan had created cross-functional "integration teams," which meant Lafferty's subordinate Marty Hussey could step in and tackle Lafferty's job until he returned.
"Marty was a real solid citizen. Because he had been involved in the process, it was relatively simple for him to continue on," Lafferty says.
"I had glibly told my department when I left for vacation, 'If I get killed or hit by a truck, just carry on.' And that's what they did," Lafferty says. "When I came back, they threw me a nice party. Then I got updated, and we just kept moving."
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]