New leader will steer Hyundai’s new era

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The name Hyundai translates into English as “modernity.”

And now, the South Korean automaker has a new chairman who embraces that forward-looking spirit of change and improvement, just as it grapples with an age of industry upheaval.

Even before being tapped last week as the new leader of Hyundai Motor Group, Euisun Chung was a key mover in the push to modernize the company amid growing pressures for electrification, autonomous driving, connectivity, big data and artificial intelligence.

If there was any doubt about his vision for a bold new future, the new boss — who turned 50 on Sunday, Oct. 18 — cited flying cars, robots and smart cities as new areas of focus in his inaugural remarks. Indeed, a new mobility R&D center that broke ground in Singapore just last week will have a landing pad for urban air mobility vehicles and be a hub of artificial intelligence innovation.

“The industry is being required to continuously change and innovate to create a new paradigm and ecosystem different from yesterday,” Chung said in his speech, titled “Start of a New Chapter.”

“We also need to face new challenges and prepare for the future.”

Chung, scion of the motor group’s founding family, has had a relatively low profile on the global stage until now. But behind the scenes, he has quietly transformed the company as his father, Mong-Koo Chung, stepped back in recent years from daily operations at Hyundai, Kia and Genesis.

The elder Chung, 82, began running the family conglomerate in 1996 and cemented his grip on the auto brands in 2000, when Hyundai and Kia were combined into Hyundai Motor Group.

He was hospitalized in July for intestinal inflammation, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency. Although the condition was not deemed serious, it spurred rumors about failing health.

Last week’s handoff, which made Mong-Koo Chung honorary chairman, formalized the first transition of power in more than two decades. But Euisun’s ascent also highlights continuity.

Like Akio Toyoda at Japanese rival Toyota Motor Corp., Euisun is the grandson of the company’s founder. The enterprise was kicked off by Juyung Chung, a former rice merchant turned mechanic who established Hyundai Motor Co. and Hyundai Engineering & Construction after World War II, setting in motion one of Korea’s most important conglomerates. Mong-Koo was one of the founder’s eight sons. Euisun underscored that lineage while accepting his promotion.

“By inheriting the sublime achievements and entrepreneurial spirit of our two former luminaries, we will together contribute to the national economy and further promote the happiness of humanity,” he said in his inauguration speech.

In recent years, under Euisun Chung, Hyundai has expanded rapidly into electrification and automated driving. It dove into the premium segment by launching the Genesis brand, and it has collected top accolades for quality and design at all three of the group’s marques. This year, the automaker became the most awarded auto group in J.D. Power’s Initial Quality Study.

Chung wasn’t shy about seeking outside assistance to spur the group’s modernization.

He helped lure big-name talent to Korea, including German design guru Peter Schreyer. He also hired former BMW executive Albert Biermann to inject better driving dynamics into the brands’ cars. By 2018, Biermann had impressed his boss so much, he was appointed head of R&D for the group.

In the critical North American market, Chung picked up former Nissan executive Jose Muñoz and made him regional head and global COO.

Chung also saw that Hyundai Motor Group — despite its heft as one of the world’s biggest automakers — couldn’t do everything itself. He ramped up collaboration, especially in the new fields outside of its expertise that will be key to the change confronting the auto industry.

This year alone, Hyundai Motor Group formed partnerships with South Korea’s SK Innovation for EV battery networks, with American tech company Aptiv on autonomous driving, and with British startup Arrival to develop electric commercial vehicles and ride-hailing services.

It even collaborated with Korean boy band BTS on a fresh melody for Hyundai’s new dedicated Ioniq electric vehicle subbrand, which was launched in August. “Ioniq: I’m on It” features the singing group and Hyundai’s Prophecy concept car.

In January, Chung announced that Hyundai Motor Group will pour $87 billion of investment into future mobility projects over the next five years. That campaign includes a target to sell 1 million electric vehicles in 2025 and plans to commercialize autonomous driving systems in 2024.

Chung joined the carmaker in 1999 as a director of procurement. He became president of Kia Motors Corp. in 2005 and vice chairman of Hyundai Motor Co. in 2009.

He was appointed executive vice chairman of Hyundai Motor Group in 2018, setting up this month’s succession.

At Kia, he helped jump-start the brand’s rapid ascent as it played catch-up to Hyundai. And at Hyundai, he helped steer the image upmarket with more sophisticated styling and technology.

Chung, who earned an MBA from the University of San Francisco, injected a more international perspective at Hyundai as it ventured out onto the global stage.

“Euisun Chung is a change agent,” said Frank Ahrens, Hyundai’s former director of global public relations. “He has prepared his entire life for this moment, studying the companies diligently and seriously, and he has worked at both Kia and Hyundai.

“He knows what to keep from his company’s and business culture’s history, and what to discard.”

Among changes, Chung has said he wants to create a flatter corporate culture at the traditionally hierarchical Hyundai, to empower employees for greater creativity and quicker decision-making.

“I will foster a company culture that respects communication and autonomy,” he said. “I will help cultivate a creative work environment, where talents are respected and realized to the fullest.”

To some observers, that attitude already manifests itself in more stable personnel movements at the company. Management at Hyundai Motor America, for instance, was once known for its rapidly revolving door. But lately, the pace of shuffling has slowed.

In February, the elder Chung was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame, the first Korean bestowed the honor. By 2019, his combined Hyundai-Kia empire was selling 6.7 million vehicles a year — nearly triple the 2.4 million it was selling when Mong-Koo Chung took the wheel of the combined group in 2000. And Hyundai had overseas assembly plants in seven countries, Kia in five. In 2000, Hyundai had only two factories outside South Korea — one in Turkey and one in India.

Speaking of his father, the new chairman called him a “pioneer and mastermind” for the company and the country.

“I want to assure you that I will do my absolute best to continue the unparalleled achievements,” the new chairman said. “I feel privileged, yet also a sense of great responsibility for opening a new chapter.”

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