NEW ORLEANS -- As Dave Zuchowski greeted well-wishers at a star-studded industry party here last week, Toyota stalwart Bob Carter stepped up to congratulate the new CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
After Carter introduced Zuchowski to Kazuo Ohara, head of Toyota's U.S. sales arm, and then cracked a couple of jokes, the executives became absorbed in a lively conversation about fuel cell vehicles.
It was a merry moment, the kind played out several times during the National Automobile Dealers Association convention as new U.S. chiefs at Hyundai, Volkswagen, Volvo, Jaguar Land Rover and Mini arrived in New Orleans, along with new national sales bosses at Chevrolet and Chrysler.
But the new crop of top execs has its work cut out. Dealers wanted to hear new strategies for struggling brands, and they wanted to take the measure of the men.
In his first major speech to a U.S. dealer body, Michael Horn, recently named CEO of Volkswagen Group of America, unveiled a new sales and marketing strategy. (See story, Page 3.)
The 51-year-old German stood in the doorway shaking hands with U.S. dealers before VW's make meeting, but many dealers did not know who he was -- and walked right past him.
Inside, he made a good first impression. Dealers gave him a round of applause that could be heard from outside the room. Even hardened critics of Volkswagen's dealer policies said they were impressed.
"It went fabulous," Wade Walker, president of Walker Motors in Montpelier, Vt., said after the meeting. "I've got to tell you: I've only been around Michael Horn three meetings, and I am so impressed by this man. This man has the pulse of the United States, and he knows Germany."
Zuchowski, 55, already is tight with his dealers. He spent eight years as U.S. sales boss before replacing John Krafcik as CEO in December. Hyundai's sales were flat in 2013, but Mike Stedem, a dealer from Slidell, La., says: "There's a great deal of dealer confidence in Dave. We were Ford dealers for 54 years, and the connectivity with this company is just phenomenal."
Zuchowski felt no dealer wrath at the make meeting.
"These meetings are always kind of touchy when you start out the beginning of a new model year, especially when you're coming off some loss in sales volume," said John St. George, general manager of Eastern Shore Hyundai in Daphne, Ala. "But it was all upbeat. Everybody's positive and excited about having Mr. Zuchowski as the head."
St. George echoed Zuchowski's desire to rebuild lost market share, saying dealers need more incentives to sell down a glut of 2013 model vehicles.