LOS ANGELES -- The departure of Kia sales boss Tom Loveless this month caught dealers off guard, but retailers say they're optimistic about the new management setup.
Kia Motors America named marketing boss Michael Sprague, 48, to the new job of executive vice president of marketing and sales after the departure of Loveless, who had been executive vice president of sales. Adam Perlow, formerly executive director of Kia's eastern region, was named vice president of sales and will report to Sprague.
The new structure, announced Feb. 7, puts Sprague in charge of sales, marketing and retail development at Kia as it attempts to evolve from a value brand to a more full-line automaker that is trying to creep into prestige territory with its new K900 flagship sedan.
Atop his agenda is a successful launch of the K900, which he hopes will act as a halo car to boost consideration for the Kia line. The K900 arrives in showrooms next month.
Reviving U.S. sales will also be key, after Kia reported a 4 percent drop in 2013, its first full-year decline since 2008.
Loveless joined Kia in 2007 as vice president of sales after a 24-year career at Chrysler Group. It wasn't clear last week whether he resigned from Kia or was forced out.
"We thank Tom for his contributions to Kia's growth in the U.S., and we wish him success in all his future endeavors," Byung Mo Ahn, CEO of Kia Motors America, said in a statement. "This restructuring is intended to support our long-term strategy and continued growth."
A Kia spokesman declined to comment further on Loveless' departure. Loveless couldn't be reached.
Henry Primeaux, owner of Primeaux Kia in Tulsa, Okla., said he was taken aback when he learned of Loveless' departure. Just days earlier, Primeaux recalled, the executive had greeted a group of Kia dealers visiting greater Los Angeles for K900 training.
Although the change was sudden, he said linking sales, marketing and retail under Sprague's leadership is a good move considering Kia's goals.
"We have a culture change coming," Primeaux said. "We really do have to think of ourselves as a competing brand, not just a value brand."
Rob King, a dealer with Kia, Mazda, Hyundai and Mitsubishi dealerships in Winston-Salem, N.C., said Sprague's new role is a promising development for Kia.
"I kind of like the idea of a marketing guy enhancing the opportunity to increase traffic," King said.
Don Hobden, chairman of Kia's dealer council, credited Loveless for his role in Kia's rapid growth since he joined in 2007 and said he had "no idea" a management change was afoot. He said he was pleased with Sprague's new role.
Hobden said Sprague's marketing strategy has brought a new level of "vision" and "polish" to the brand. At a dealer meeting soon after he joined the company, Hobden recalled, Sprague drew a line in the sand against gimmicky dealer advertising deals.
Hobden concedes he was one of the dealers who resisted at first, but says Sprague's decision not to help fund such promotions proved to be the right one for the brand's future.