LOS ANGELES -- After more than six months of searching, Hyundai Motor America today named Steve Wilhite its new chief operating officer. The change takes effect Aug. 16.
Wilhite comes to Hyundai from Nissan Motor Co., where he was senior vice president of global marketing, stationed in Japan. Before that, Wilhite was vice president of marketing for Nissan North America.
Prior to joining Nissan, he was Apple Computer Inc.s vice president of worldwide marketing communications. From 1989-1998, Wilhite was the senior marketing executive at Volkswagen of America, where he coordinated the Drivers Wanted campaign and helped launch the New Beetle. He began his automotive career at Ford Motor Co.
Wilhite takes the place of Bob Cosmai as the top American executive. Cosmai was ousted in January in a move that surprised even Hyundai insiders. Cosmai joined Kia COO Peter Butterfield on the recent list of American executives fired by their Korean bosses despite successful track records.
Wilhite does not directly replace Cosmai, however. Cosmai held the CEO title, which was taken over by Korean executive O.S. Koh in January. Wilhite instead is a half-step down as COO, and reports to Koh.
Keith Duckworth, who runs Hyundais Alabama plant -- and who was named acting COO following Cosmais firing -- cedes his COO duties to Wilhite and continues in his manufacturing job.
Wilhite takes the reins as Hyundai fires up its medium-term growth objectives. It is on track to sell 500,000 units this year, but has a 2010 target of 1 million vehicles. The automaker plans to expand into rear-drive luxury cars and larger SUVs within the next couple years. A mid-size pickup truck also is on the horizon.
Hyundai sales through July are up 4.6 percent to 281,240 units. June and July were back-to-back all-time record sales months for the brand.
Despite a new face in Hyundais American management, some dealers worry that power still emanates from South Korea.
No one has been running that place for six months, said a dealer, who spoke anonymously for fear of factory retribution. All the decisions come from Korea. The guys in California are nice guys, but we know where the decisions are being made.
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