LOS ANGELES -- Hyundai Motor Co. has appointed former Nissan executive Jose Munoz as global COO, as well as president and CEO of American operations, in a quick and stunning return to the top echelons of the auto industry for the hard-charging Spaniard.
Munoz will focus on delivering profitable growth and raising the bar on overall performance of the brand, tapping into his decades of automotive and technology experience, Hyundai said Thursday in a statement.
“Jose Munoz has an impressive track record and is proven to be a visionary and motivational leader who is adept at all aspects of our business,” Wonhee Lee, president of the Korean automaker, said in the statement. “[We] will lean on his leadership skills and vision to achieve long-term sustainable growth and evolve into a smart mobility solutions provider.”
Automotive News reported Friday that Munoz was in advanced discussions with Hyundai but hadn’t finalized terms. When he takes over May 1, Munoz will report to Hyundai’s top leadership in Seoul and will be based at Hyundai Motor America’s headquarters in Fountain Valley, Calif., where he will oversee North, South and Central America operations.
“I am excited to join Hyundai Motor at this vital time in its history,” Munoz said in the statement. “My capabilities around delivering steady profitable growth, managing the entire supply chain, and working together with our dealer partners to find win-win solutions match up well with the opportunity here.”
Munoz, 53, abruptly resigned as Nissan’s chief performance officer in mid-January as the scandal involving imprisoned former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn engulfed the Japanese automaker. Munoz said at the time of his resignation that he would cooperate with investigations into Ghosn’s financial dealings at Nissan.
The move comes as Hyundai is finding its sales footing in the U.S. with a new lineup of crossovers. Hyundai lost U.S. market share in four of the past five years as consumers moved into light trucks and away from sedans, a traditional Hyundai strength.
Combined U.S. sales of the Hyundai and Genesis brands are up 2 percent this year, while the overall market has slid 3.2 percent.
The brand introduced its most-affordable and smallest crossover for the U.S., the Venue, Wednesday at the New York auto show. Hyundai said the Venue is the seventh crossover in its U.S. lineup. Munoz was at the show but didn’t appear publicly.
Early in his career, Munoz worked at now-defunct Korean automaker Daewoo in Spain before spending five years with Toyota in Europe, according to his LinkedIn profile. He joined Nissan in 2004.
Munoz was chairman of Nissan’s North America operations from 2014 until last year, when he was named chairman of the automaker’s China operations. He was a key driver of Ghosn’s Power 88 plan to hit 8 percent operating profit and 8 percent global market share. The automaker fell short on both targets.
In the U.S., Munoz pushed hard to achieve -- briefly -- an impressive 10 percent market share of the U.S. light-vehicle market, for a gain of 3 percentage points. But he was also a divisive figure in the Nissan and Infiniti dealer communities for stair-step incentive programs and other aggressive sales tactics that some dealers say hurt profitability and brand value.
Nissan has since pulled back on those programs under Ghosn’s successor as CEO, Hiroto Saikawa. Saikawa has openly disparaged the previous strategy.
Dave Wright, owner of Dave Wright Auto in Hiawatha, Iowa, said Munoz’s tenure was marked by a deterioration in dealer relations with the manufacturer.
“The Nissan from when I bought the store 14 years ago to the Nissan of the last five or six years is definitely rougher,” he said in an interview. “Look at Nissan’s leasing program -- it’s terrible. I think they put so many cars in fleet that our residual values have absolutely tanked.”
The source of dealer conflict was rooted both in Ghosn’s drive for market share and Munoz’s hardball implementation of the program in the U.S., Wright said. “I don’t think American dealers take real well to someone coming in and basically saying, ‘Do it my way, or get out.’ I think we’re a little more independent than that.”
Munoz, who is a native of Spain and ran Nissan Mexicana a decade ago, also has his supporters among dealer ranks in the U.S.
Ray Brandt, a longtime member of the Nissan National Dealer Advisory Board and CEO of Ray Brandt Automotive Group in Louisiana, considers Munoz one of the most talented auto executives he has worked with during nearly four decades in the business.
“It’s a great move for Hyundai, and it’s a great move for him,” said Brandt, who has Nissan, Infiniti, Hyundai and Genesis dealerships, among others.
Brandt acknowledged that some Nissan and Infiniti dealers have expressed displeasure with Munoz’s hard-charging ways because he was always challenging them to reach higher and was unorthodox in his approach.
“You have eleven hundred dealers; you’re not going to make everyone happy,” Brandt added. He called Munoz’s move to Hyundai “unequivocally positive” for the brand.