In seven years as Kia Motors Corp.'s top U.S. executive, Byung Mo Ahn never sought out the spotlight. Last week he left the stage in the same manner: without fanfare.
Yet the departure of Ahn, 64, marks a pivotal moment for a brand that has enjoyed unprecedented growth and stability after a tumultuous period in which the company churned through seven U.S. CEOs in nine years.
"He delivered some pretty strong promises to dealers the first time he spoke, and he lived up to his promises," said Don Hobden, a Kia dealer in Alabama and former chairman of Kia's dealer council. "I think he left some incredibly big shoes to fill."
Ahn's successor, Jang Won Sohn, has the challenge of continuing to increase Kia's sales and market share and closing the gap with Honda, Nissan and Toyota.
That will be more difficult than in recent years because of intensified competition to sell the small and midsize cars in which Kia specializes. A redesigned version of Kia's best-selling model, the Optima, will arrive in dealerships this summer, facing off against a fresh-looking Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Malibu and Volkswagen Passat.
"The strategy with the Optima will probably be to execute a great car and keep their share," said Larry Dominique, president of TrueCar Inc.'s ALG car-pricing division. "If you want to gain share in that segment, it's going to cost you."
Sohn, 54, has led Kia's Europe group since 2011 while based in Korea. He previously held sales posts in Europe and the Americas. From 2007 to 2009, Sohn was president of Kia Germany. According to his LinkedIn profile, he uses an Anglicized nickname -- Jay.