SEOUL -- Kia Motors Corp. promoted its chief designer Peter Schreyer to the role of president, the first foreigner to attain the position at the company, as the South Korean automaker seeks to elevate its global profile.
German-born Schreyer, hired from Volkswagen AG in 2006, was promoted to president from executive vice president, Kia said in a statement today.
The appointment makes Frankfurt-based Schreyer, who remains chief design officer, one of three presidents at the company.
"The promotion shows Kia's key focus areas shifting from production and cost efficiency, which were traditionally considered more important, to design and research and development," said Shin Chung Kwan, an analyst at KB Investment & Securities Co. in Seoul. "It also symbolizes Kia's urge to advance as a global company -- showing a foreigner could make it to one of the top positions."
Kia and Hyundai Motor Co. are both headed by Chairman Chung Mong Koo. His son Chung Eui Sun hired Schreyer when the younger Chung was co-CEO of Kia six years ago.
Kia and Hyundai Motor are stepping up efforts to move upscale and away from their reputations as builders of cheap, utilitarian cars. Schreyer, the designer of the Audi TT Coupe, was hired to overhaul Kia's lineup and allow the Seoul-based automaker to charge more for its models.
The promotion is also clear sign of Kia and Hyundai's ambition to outdo German rivals Volkswagen and BMW in design -- a key part of a strategy that has helped the South Korean duo ramp up sales and gain market share even during the global economic downturn in 2009.
"We should not have let him go," Volkswagen's Chairman Ferdinand Piech told Automotive News in an interview in November.
Before joining Kia, Schreyer thought Kia's designs were "neutral."
"I thought I wanted to give Kia a character and a family feel... If you come to a country and you see a Kia, you should recognize it immediately, like you recognize a BMW or Mercedes immediately," he said in an interview with Reuters in March.
At VW, Schreyer was head designer for the namesake brand and oversaw the development of the new Beetle, introduced in 1998.
The 59-year-old studied transportation design at the Royal College of Art in London, joined Audi in 1980 and later became the brand's head of design.
Schreyer has revised Kia's sedan lineup since joining the company. His team introduced a common front shape with the "tiger-nose" grille for Kia models in 2007, now featured by almost all the company's vehicles including the Optima, the revamped Sorento crossover, the Soul crossover and the Forte compact.
Kia, 34 percent owned by Hyundai Motor, is targeting to sell 2.75 million units in 2013, the Korea Economic Daily reported on Dec. 26, citing an unidentified Hyundai official. Hyundai, South Korea's biggest automaker, expects to beat its full-year sales forecast of 4.29 million cars, CFO Lee Won Hee said on Oct. 25.
Kia, acquired by Hyundai in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis, has been expanding sales at a faster pace than Hyundai Motor in markets such as the United States and Europe.
Combined, Kia and Hyundai Motor rank fifth in global car sales.
Inspired by Schreyer's success, Hyundai Motor lured ex-BMW designer Christopher Chapman to head its U.S. design center this year.
Kia's transformation is yet complete.
The K9, Kia's first rear-wheel drive luxury sedan, is not doing well in South Korea. Sales reached 405 vehicles in November, less than a quarter of a sales target of 2,000 a month.
"Kia is in a situation where Audi was 30 years ago, and even longer," Schreyer said during a lecture at Yonsei University in Seoul in May.
This is "an adventure, positive adventure," he said, wearing his signature black suit and horn-rimmed glasses.
He also said that Kia, which jointly conducts research and development with Hyundai Motor, needs to further improve its technology.
"BMW is famous for engines. This is the core of BMW, the path they will not leave. They're investinga lot in technology," he said at the lecture.
In March, Schreyer said he does not plan to leave Kia.
"I kind of feel that I belong to Kia," he told Reuters.
Bloomberg, Reuters and David Phillips contributed to this report