LOS ANGELES -- Steve Wilhite, Hyundai Motor America's new COO, is joining a company that has shown limited patience for its top executives.
Wilhite takes the place of Bob Cosmai as Hyundai's top U.S. executive. Cosmai was ousted in January in a move that surprised even company insiders. Cosmai's predecessor, Finbarr O'Neill, left voluntarily in 2003. But his two predecessors, Robert Parker and Doug Mazza, were replaced.
In October 2005, the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group fired Peter Butterfield, CEO of Kia Motors America.
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.
Wilhite does not directly replace Cosmai, however. Cosmai held the CEO title, which was taken over by Korean executive Ok Suk Koh in January. Wilhite is a step down as COO and reports to Koh.
Before joining Nissan, Wilhite was Apple Computer Inc.'s vice president of marketing communications. From 1989 to 1998 he was senior marketing executive at Volkswagen of America.
Hyundai is on track to sell 500,000 units this year and has a 2010 target of 1 million vehicles. It plans to expand into rear-wheel-drive luxury cars and larger SUVs, and a mid-sized pickup also is on the horizon.
Hyundai sales through July are up 4.6 percent to 281,240 units. June and July were record sales months.
Despite a new face in Hyundai's U.S. management, some dealers worry that power at Hyundai and Kia - corporate cousins owned by Hyundai Group - still emanates from South Korea.
"All the decisions come from Korea," said a dealer, who spoke anonymously for fear of factory retribution. "The guys in California are nice guys, but we know where the decisions are being made."
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]