LOS ANGELES -- The word is that General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre is looking for people who have spunk, know their business and speak from the heart.
He got all that in Joel Ewanick, the fiery marketer who became a rock star at Hyundai, only to be stolen by Nissan in March and then by GM on Wednesday, May 5.
Ewanick, 49, with an ever-present sly grin, personally led about six focus groups a year while he was at Hyundai. He says that gave Hyundai an edge -- and prompted the Hyundai Assurance campaign, which offers to let buyers return their cars if they lose their income within a year.
"You can only learn so much by reading research numbers," Ewanick told Automotive News late last year. "It's another thing to have [people] look you in the eye and say how they feel -- 'I lost my job; I'm worried about my house.' "
Ewanick went to Hyundai during troubled times. Key U.S. executives had been broomed for not meeting sales targets. He replaced Michelle Cervantez as head of marketing in February 2007.
He had been lured from Hyundai's ad agency, Richards Group, and his first act was to fire the agency.
Ewanick's boss and friend, Steve Wilhite, quit after only about a year on the job. Ewanick had been there about seven months. But Ewanick, sales chief Dave Zuchowski and CEO John Krafcik became a dynamic trio.
The company kicked into high gear in January 2009, when the Hyundai Genesis was named North American Car of the Year by a group of auto writers during the Detroit auto show, and Hyundai Assurance was launched.
Some dealers think Ewanick was just in the right place at the right time. "Joel, he's all right," says Jared Hardin, owner of Garden Grove Hyundai near Los Angeles. "He did think out of the box; he was creative. But it was not Assurance that drove traffic last year. It was cash for clunkers."
Nonetheless, Ewanick's star brightened after Hyundai Assurance hit the market and other automakers followed with similar programs.
Always wired, Ewanick likes proving that he can take an underdog to the top. Just give him a little money, and he smiles like a kid in a candy store.
Take the Hyundai Genesis as an example: the luxury car that some naysayers said Hyundai could never sell because of the brand's lingering reputation for little, cheap cars.
During a company trip to Korea in May 2008, with his eyes darting side to side as they do when he's about to drop a scoop, Ewanick gleefully told Automotive News that he had $80 million to launch the Genesis. It was the most money Hyundai had ever spent to launch a vehicle in this country.
"We have to make every cent count," Ewanick said during a bus ride in Seoul. "This car will allow us to reach new customers and talk up quality like we never have."
Ewanick had dealers on their feet at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention in January 2009 when he told them that Super Bowl sponsorships in 2008 and 2009 were just the beginning of big-voice advertising from Hyundai. He announced that Hyundai was replacing GM that February as the premier automotive sponsor of the Academy Awards show.
"We want to be on the big screen," Ewanick said at the convention.
Like the Energizer Bunny, Ewanick never stops moving.
"GM has a lot of iconic brands," says Global Insight analyst Rebecca Lindland. "Joel now has an opportunity to really make a difference, to help bolster those brands."