One of my favorite memories of brand-new Hyundai Motor Group Executive Vice Chairman Euisun Chung came shortly after I started at the company in Seoul in 2010. Hyundai Motor was about to launch its new brand identity -- “modern premium” -- at the 2011 Detroit auto show. As Hyundai’s director of global public relations, it fell to me to help write and polish the critical speech the vice chairman would give that launched this new company direction.
I was new to Hyundai and blissfully ignorant of the hierarchy that governs corporations in Confucian East Asia. All I knew was that I needed to hear how the speech sounded coming out of the vice chairman’s mouth to help make it the best it could be.
When the vice chairman hired me, he told me I could contact him at any time. Naively, I took him at his word and shot him an email, telling him I’d like to hear him rehearse the speech. In any corporation, honestly, this simple action would have broken the chain of command. In a Confucian culture, it subverted a couple thousand years of tradition. As I later wrote, it was like asking Confucius himself to drop and give me 20.
But the vice chairman replied right away and invited me to come to his office high atop the Hyundai Motor tower in the Yangjae neighborhood of southern Seoul.
There, the genial vice chairman read through the speech ably. Then, he asked me to read through it, so he could hear how it sounded from a native English speaker. At the Detroit show, the vice chairman nailed the speech and, on the flight back to Seoul, thanked me for my work. I felt proud and loyal to him.
Now, the inevitable has happened: Vice Chairman Euisun Chung, now Executive Vice Chairman Euisun Chung, has taken a critical step toward succeeding his father, Chung Mong-koo, as chairman of the Hyundai Motor Group conglomerate. I believe Euisun Chung will bring this kind of open-mindedness, intelligence, humility and flexibility to the top job.
Chung Mong-koo's legacy at Hyundai will be its impressive climb in quality. When he took over Hyundai Motor, the cars’ quality was awful -- they were the Yugos of the 1990s. But Chung Mong-koo changed all that by instituting a quality division and a global quality regimen. In the most recent J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, Genesis, Kia and Hyundai finished one, two and three.
Euisun Chung's marks
So far, Euisun Chung’s major marks on the company have come in design and branding.
He came up through Kia, learning the company before moving over to Hyundai, and hired Peter Schreyer away from Audi to put him in charge of Kia design. Later, Schreyer expanded his portfolio to include Hyundai. The parade of concept and production vehicles coming out of Hyundai and Kia on his watch have drawn admiration. Additionally, Euisun Chung created the Advanced Design Studio at headquarters and Hyundai Creative Works, which designs everything from the automaker’s PyeongChang Olympics pavilion to auto show stands.
On branding, Euisun Chung has worked to change Hyundai from simply a maker of high-quality volume cars that people buy largely on price, much like, say, washing machines, to a brand destination. He wants to make Hyundai and Kia vehicles beautiful, intuitive and emotionally connected to their customers.
People inside and outside of Hyundai Motor Group expect a culture change to come with the ascension of the vice chairman.
Change happens lightning-fast in Korea. I just returned from my first trip to Seoul in four years and was amazed by the changes. When I was last there in 2014, every salaryman wore a suit and tie. Now, business casual is the rule. Generational change is already underway in Korea and the vice chairman is arriving at the right moment to drive it forward at Hyundai.
There is no doubt that Hyundai and Kia face business headwinds, from China to product mix to domestic competition to trade. Even though I’m an unapologetic fan of the vice chairman, I do believe he will come at the challenges in an open-minded, collaborative and decisive way. He is a car guy -- he loves “Top Gear” -- who also understands that today’s automakers must become mobility solutions providers. And he will put his own stamp on the company.
I realized that at an event in Seoul when the vice chairman’s car pulled up. As was typical for a high-ranking Hyundai executive, his car was the top-of-the-line Equus, now known as the Genesis G90.
But here’s what was different: Instead of black, the standard color of executive cars, the vice chairman’s car was dark blue. This may seem like a small rebellion but, in what was then a pretty rigid corporate and societal culture of expectations and rules, his car may as well have been blaze orange. I commented on the color when the vice chairman emerged and he gave a knowing smile, “I picked it. Do you like it?”
Frank Ahrens is the author of Seoul Man: A Memoir of Cars, Culture, Crisis and Unexpected Hilarity Inside a Korean Corporate Titan.
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