Kia's Len Hunt: ''We need to move from being the price leader to being a brand that fuels loyalty.''
The new COO at Kia Motors America Inc. also pledged to keep auto dealers involved in the brand's sales and image-building.
"We are changing nothing from the Las Vegas (national dealer) meeting," Hunt said in an interview on Wednesday, Oct. 12, his third day in the new job. "The dealers have a terrific blueprint. We're just going to press harder on the accelerator."
Hunt, 50, arrives from Volkswagen of America just as Kia launches a slew of redesigned products. The redesigned Sportage sport wagon arrived this year, and the redesigned Rio subcompact sedan and hatchback are just reaching showrooms. A new Sedona minivan and Optima mid-sized sedan come in the spring.
But new product alone is not enough, he says.
"Every dealer needs to step up in every area. You can't just double volume by adding product," Hunt said. "We need to move from being the price leader to being a brand that fuels loyalty. Kia needs to develop an emotional affinity with its customers."
Kia sold 270,055 vehicles in 2004, and sales are up 6.2 percent through September. Kia's Korean management wants the U.S. sales arm to reach 500,000 units annually in 2010.
Taking the Kia job meant Hunt forfeited being Bentley's head of worldwide marketing, a job he had assumed just days before. He previously had spent 18 months running VW's U.S. operations and four years before that running Audi's U.S. operations.
Hunt acknowledged that "I had been talking to Bentley for a long time," but when it came time to make a decision, "this is a bigger deal."
Hunt's new job involves managing executives from different cultures. In addition to his Korean bosses, Hunt -- an Englishman -- will work with an executive team that includes a Scot, a Swede, an Australian and an American.
Sources say his predecessor, Peter Butterfield, clashed with his Korean bosses over management styles and tactics, which led to his firing at the Las Vegas dealer meeting.
Hunt already has made a to-do list.
"The first question is where we take the brand in terms of product, in discovering its sportiness and fun-to-drive character," Hunt said. "It needs to have the characteristic of fun but set in a premise of value and quality."
Hunt lauded one of Butterfield's big achievements, getting Kia dealers to build exclusive showrooms. Now, about 75 percent of Kia's volume is sold through stand-alone "Circle of Excellence" dealerships.
"When you have exclusives, people feel the brand, there is more dedication from the dealership staff, sales go up and your service and parts business improves," Hunt said.
"Now we need to build on that with the product and customer experience."
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]