LOS ANGELES — The appointment of former Nissan executive Jose Munoz as global COO and North American chief of Hyundai Motor Co. has broad implications for the Korean automaker as it seeks to boost sales and profitability in the key U.S. market.
Which Munoz will show up at Hyundai?
Will it be the passionate leader, or the stair-step king?
For some dealers, however, the big question is whether they will get the same Nissan officer who pushed volume into crowded showrooms or a more nuanced leader in tune with retailers' needs for profitability and long-term brand value, they say. One dealership executive already has said he intends to drop his group's franchise.
Munoz's hiring last week was a quick and stunning return to the highest levels of the global auto industry after his abrupt resignation as chief performance officer in mid-January, as the scandal involving imprisoned former Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn engulfed the Japanese automaker. Munoz, a key Ghosn lieutenant, promised to cooperate with the investigations into his former boss's financial dealings.
1989: Dealer principal, Citroen and Peugeot family dealership
1996: Network development director, Daewoo Motor Iberia
1999: Deputy general manager, Toyota Motor Marketing Europe
2004: General manager, dealer network development, Nissan Europe
2006: Managing director, Nissan Iberia
2009: President and general director, Nissan Mexicana
2012: Senior vice president, Nissan North America
2014: Executive vice president, Nissan Motor; chairman, Nissan North America
2016: Chief performance officer, Nissan
2019: COO, Hyundai Motor; president and CEO, Hyundai Motor North America and Hyundai Motor America
Source: Nissan Motor Co.
As the new executive arrives at Hyundai's Southern California headquarters beginning May 1, the value brand is finding its sales footing in the U.S. with a new lineup of crossovers after years of losing market share due in part to its car-heavy lineup. 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. Dealers have applauded the brisk product cadence and expressed hope that the push for volume won't come at the expense of their bottom line.
Munoz told Automotive News at the New York auto show last week that he's committed to good dealer relations in his new role.
"I think those who have worked with me closely, they know that first of all we are going to work together with our dealers. I think that is part of the culture of Hyundai," he said. "When you work together with dealers, it's to ensure that you deliver a better service to the customers and a better product. So, it's clear that we have to work together."
While at Nissan, Munoz said, he had to be aligned with the brand's strategies as directed by Ghosn, whom he praised as a great leader. "And then you have your own beliefs and your own character. Everybody knows I'm very passionate, and I've been in the retail business myself, and sometimes I'm a little impatient in terms of what needs to be delivered."
Neither Nissan nor Hyundai ranked among the top 10 brands in the most recent National Automobile Dealers Association Dealer Attitude Survey, which measures dealers' favorability toward their manufacturers. Lexus, Toyota, Subaru and Honda took the top spots.
For some dealers, Munoz's experience at troubled Nissan is a cautionary tale.
"I can't imagine anyone would be excited about bringing over a big dose of Nissan dealer relations [to Hyundai] at this point," said one multibrand dealer worried about the implications for his Hyundai store. The retailer, who asked that his name not be used in order to maintain positive brand relations, said that when he saw the Automotive News story first reporting on Hyundai's contract talks with Munoz, he thought, "Oh, goodness."
The dealer said in an interview that he and many of his counterparts saw the 2017 hiring of former Toyota executive Brian Smith as Hyundai Motor America's COO as a step in the right direction, given that Japanese brand's stellar dealer relations and its rejection of stair-step incentive programs. Munoz, in contrast, is seen in some quarters as the king of the stair steps.
David Rosenberg, CEO of Prime Motor Group in New England and a former chairman of Infiniti's National Dealer Advisory Board, said he clashed with Munoz before selling his Infiniti dealership a couple years ago, calling out stair-step programs and dealer profitability during a brand meeting.
"I disagree fundamentally, philosophically with consistent, aggressive stair-step programs, and I believe dealers should expect a manufacturer to be a partner," said Rosenberg, who added that he intends to exit his group's Hyundai franchise. "I don't know why you would bring someone in whose modus operandi was pushing volume no matter what the cost." He noted that Nissan is backtracking on its aggressive sales tactics. "They've had to do a lot of damage control and make conciliatory gestures to dealers after the departure of Mr. Munoz."
In contrast, 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," he said.