LOS ANGELES -- Hyundai Motor Co. has replaced Bob Cosmai as CEO of its U.S. operations with a Korean executive.
The automaker did not say if Cosmai resigned or if he was fired. But in a phone interview, Cosmai acknowledged that he was surprised by the action.
In Cosmai's place, Hyundai has installed Ok-Suk (Owen) Koh as CEO of Hyundai Motor America. In a release, the company said Koh, 52, was made CEO "to streamline the decision-making process, enhance communication and position the company for future growth."
In an interview, Hyundai spokesman Chris Hosford said, "Bob could certainly communicate with Hyundai in Korea, but the company felt that Owen was the best and most effective person to do that."
Hosford said that a search for a permanent COO has begun, and that both internal and external candidates will be considered. He did not give a timeframe for when a permanent COO will be named.
Koh came to Hyundai Motor America in 2005 as chief executive coordinator, the Korean "shadow executive" to Cosmai. Previously, Koh was CEO of Translead, a Hyundai Motor Co. subsidiary in San Diego. Translead is a manufacturer of shipping containers and heavy-duty truck chassis and trailers.
The announcement from Hyundai mirrors a similar step made by its sibling Kia Motors America Inc. late last year. Kia CEO Peter Butterfield was ousted during the national dealer meeting and replaced by a Korean executive.
Hyundai's top U.S. executive will be Keith Duckworth, with the title of acting COO. He will maintain his post as deputy president of Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama LLC.
Cosmai, 57, joined Hyundai from Acura Division in 1998, as vice president of sales. He was promoted to CEO in 2003 after the departure of Finbarr O'Neill to Mitsubishi Motors North America.
When Cosmai joined Hyundai in 1998, the automaker's sales had been floating at the 90,000-unit level for several years. Hyundai even had been considering abandoning the United States.
But O'Neill, Cosmai and several other key American executives launched a turnaround plan, including a successful 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty, and sales have soared every year since. In 2005, Hyundai sold 455,012 units, up 8.7 percent from the previous year.
"I am leaving the company in much better shape than it was in seven years ago," Cosmai said.
"I brought some stability to the organization and credibility with our dealers. I brought in some good people and good dealers. I am proud of what I have done. But it wouldn't have happened without the support of the parent company," Cosmai said.
As CEO, Cosmai established more Hyundai-only dealerships, geared up to sell a broader product lineup and reworked the corporate organization to prepare for growth.
In 2004 Hyundai said it would break the 500,000-unit mark in 2005 but fell 44,988 units shy.
In an interview last week at the Detroit auto show, Cosmai was confident that Hyundai was on track to break 500,000 units in 2006. That would make it only the fifth import automaker -- following Volkswagen, Toyota, Honda and Nissan -- to reach that goal in the United States. The VW brand has since slumped below that number since hitting it for several years in the early 1970s.
Hyundai Motor Co. has said it expects its U.S. subsidiary to reach 1 million sales in 2010 and for Kia to hit 500,000 units.
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]