Talk Swirls Around Hyundai's Wilhite Returning to Ford

Execs Say the COO Has Clashed With South Korean Management

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Usually, auto dealers heading out to their national meeting are buzzing about sales targets or coming marketing. But dealers and auto executives on their way to Hyundai's big event in San Diego this week are instead atwitter over whether one of their highest-profile executives is leaving the company.
Steve Wilhite, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor America
Steve Wilhite, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor America Credit: Nissan Motor Co., Ltd.

The grapevine was buzzing in both California and Detroit last week that Steve Wilhite, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor America for just over a year, will depart by the end of the month -- and could return to Ford Motor Co.

Ford is known to have been seeking a chief marketing officer for six months. A Ford spokesman said last week no decision had been made, and he declined to comment on whether Mr. Wilhite, who started his automotive career at Ford, is the front-runner. Mr. Wilhite did not return repeated calls and e-mails for comment, and a Hyundai spokesman said only that Mr. Wilhite has been editing and rehearsing his speech to the dealers and will attend the meeting.

Questionable timing
Clearly, though, announcing such a high-level departure before a morale-building meeting would be a major distraction for dealers, who have complained about the revolving door among top non-Korean management, said an executive close to the automaker.

Hyundai spent $550 million on advertising last year. Sales were flat through last month at 325,193 vehicles, forcing the automaker to reduce its original 2007 U.S. sales projection from 550,000 vehicles by 40,000 units.

Executives close to the matter said Mr. Wilhite, a California native who has a fondness for Hawaiian shirts, has had a rocky road during his tenure at Hyundai, due in part to personality and culture clashes with South Korean management.

At the meeting that begins this Thursday, Hyundai said it will discuss bringing back the five regional advertising groups disbanded by Mr. Wilhite earlier this year that spent some $300 million on advertising annually. In disbanding the groups, he allowed dealers to voluntarily form smaller ad groups to hire whichever ad agencies they wanted. In doing so, however, Hyundai lost some sway over the local messaging.

Fast action
At Ford, meanwhile, the board is growing impatient with the CMO search and urged CEO Alan Mullaly to fill the post at a meeting Sept. 12, two executives close to the automaker said.

Other names that have been floated as possible contenders by executives close to the matter are: Jeri Finard, who stepped down in April as marketing chief of Kraft Foods; Randolph Baseler, who retired in April as VP-marketing of Boeing Commercial Airplanes and worked there under Mr. Mullaly; and Richard Stoddart, the former marketing-communications manager of Ford Division who joined Leo Burnett, Chicago, as president in 2005. Mr. Stoddart said he had been approached months ago but was not interested in the post. Attempts to reach the other two were unsuccessful.

Ford, which spends $2.5 billion annually on advertising, desperately needs a boost in its marketing leadership; one industry executive who competes with the automaker said recent research showed Ford's advertising ranks near the bottom for brand recall. A Ford spokesman, however, said those results "don't square with what we've seen in our research, which show an uptick in brand favorability."
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