NEW YORK — He breezed into town on a midnight flight from Madrid, grabbed a few hours of sleep and then climbed a flight of stairs to a second-floor meeting room inside an auto show booth filled with faces he'd never met before.
The next chapter for Jose Munoz began before daybreak on an April Wednesday deep inside the Javits Center in a role tailored for him: COO of Hyundai Motor Co. and president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America.
Ninety-six days since his sudden departure as Nissan's chief performance officer, Munoz re-emerged on the industry stage with barely a whisper, the new Hyundai executive ushered into a private meeting room with little fanfare.
No press conferences or big proclamations — Hyundai choosing not to overshadow the debut of its new CUV with its soon-to-be-unveiled COO.
It was the quietest earthquake to ever shake the industry.
"I am really, really happy to be back," a beaming, tanned and fit Munoz said, extending his outstretched hand as a cast of handlers mingled quietly in the background. "I can tell you that the out-of-work period was extremely busy."
While away, he traveled to six continents, stayed in touch with former industry peers and even made sure to personally renew his newspaper subscriptions to stay on top of the news.
"I never wanted to be out of touch for a moment," he said.
And you knew he wouldn't be out long.
Munoz, the hard-charging, passionate 53-year-old Spaniard with the capability to produce more hours in a day than the clock would allow, was destined for a quick return to the industry express lane.
He had too much energy and too much to accomplish.
When he left two months after the arrest of its legendary leader, Carlos Ghosn, he was viewed as a potential future Nissan CEO himself.
Whatever happened at Nissan, Munoz isn't saying. But he still praises his former boss. "It's been an honor and a privilege being able to work very closely with Mr. Ghosn, and I've learned a lot from him and I still continue to learn," he said.
What's ahead at Hyundai is daunting.
Hyundai dealers sounded alarm bells after Automotive News on April 12 reported that Munoz was in final negotiations with the automaker. And rightfully so.
Hyundai retailers are survivors. They have endured a revolving door of leaders over the decades, each with a new mission and great hope and very often a short tenure.
The reality has been low dealer profitability and sales satisfaction scores — in line with market share numbers that shrank as the company played catch-up in converting a sedan-heavy lineup to crossovers and SUVs.
Munoz's No. 1 task is to get dealers on board, something that was a challenge at Nissan where Ghosn set the directive for market share and Munoz executed the plan with fervor.
There is a long line of frustrated (and former) Nissan dealers who likely placed calls to Hyundai dealers once this latest news hit.
"To work equally with absolutely every single dealer in the country in all the regions, all sizes," he said. "There are going to be opportunities for everybody. But of course, we want to elevate the brand to where it belongs, which is at a much higher level than it is today."
Munoz's honeymoon period should include a request to Seoul for a bigger slice of new-car dealer margin, where Hyundai retailers are getting hammered. Win them over early and he might win them over for life. These Hyundai dealers want consistency in message and leadership — and someone who listens.
So it was no coincidence that the word "dealers" emerged more than a dozen times during our talk. He gets it.
Elevating the brand cannot mean a race to the bottom with stair-step incentives that Nissan executives now dismiss as a brand destroyer, even if Munoz says that was never the intention.
"Every time a company sets up strategies to be implemented, the intention is to elevate the brand, elevate the sales, elevate the profitability and deliver more value for the shareholders or profitability for the dealers and also a greater customer satisfaction," Munoz said. "I think the best way to judge is to look at the results."
And so it will be all about results, because Munoz is nothing if not a results guy.
So, on an April morning in New York, it is a fresh start and a new role at a new brand in a new booth.
"Sometimes when you see someone else's backyard, it's greener," Munoz said with a wide smile. "This side is very green."
And with that, he was gone. The auto show meeting room door closed, a new chapter open.