Talk about irony. And poor timing.
Len Hunt, the new COO of Kia Motors America, had just finished laying out his plan to boost Kia's brand image in a speech Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the Automotive News World Congress when we learned that Bob Cosmai had been sacked as CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
Hunt's speech in Dearborn, Mich., eloquently described his vision of the brand ladder that Kia must climb to boost sales and gain emotional allegiance from its buyers. The first rung of Hunt's ladder is confidence, followed by integrity, then pride and, ultimately, passion.
Hunt, who hails from England, came to Kia from Bentley and the Volkswagen organization. He has spent a great deal of time learning about the role Korean culture plays in developing Korean companies. In his speech, he described that culture as collaborative and talked about how that attribute will help him shape the Kia brand in America.
I can't speak authoritatively about Korean culture, but what I've observed at Hyundai and Kia sure is interesting.
Hunt got the job at Kia after his predecessor, Peter Butterfield, was hauled out of a dinner at the national dealer meeting and summarily fired.
Bob Cosmai seemed a perfect example of collaborative management, and he got results. Working with his predecessor, Finbarr O'Neill, he was instrumental in driving the herculean effort necessary to reshape Hyundai's image in America. To succeed, they had to overcome the embarrassment of the Excel and its quality problems.
In just seven years, O'Neill and Cosmai turbocharged Hyundai sales from about 90,000 a year to more than 450,000 last year.
Maybe that's not good enough. Or perhaps Butterfield and Cosmai weren't collaborative enough.
Or maybe the Koreans are starting to panic.
Hyundai, then Kia, entered the United States as the low-cost producer. They competed against late-model used cars, gradually working their way up the food chain.
Now Chinese automakers such as Chery and Geely are preparing to invade North America. They will be the new lower-cost producers.
The question Hyundai and Kia executives must ask themselves is whether a brand ladder can carry them far enough up the food chain to avoid being eaten by the Chinese.
Maybe Cosmai didn't grind down on the dealers hard enough to suit the corporate bosses in Korea.
Maybe he was too collaborative.
It's certainly an interesting culture.
You may e-mail Edward Lapham at [email protected]