Hyundai close to hiring Toyota veteran Brian Smith

LOS ANGELES — Hyundai Motor America is preparing to name Brian Smith, a longtime Toyota and Lexus executive, as its COO, according to several people familiar with the situation.

The expected hire, which could be announced as soon as Monday, comes just weeks after the U.S. arm chose a full-time CEO, ending a nine-month search. The two appointments would begin to restore some stability to Hyundai Motor America's top ranks, which had been roiled by tensions with the Korean parent company in recent years over sales goals and production levels.

Smith retired as vice president of retail transformation at Toyota on Sept. 8, soon after Toyota finished moving its North American headquarters from Southern California to Texas. Before that post, he was vice president of Lexus marketing. He spent 35 years with Toyota.

In his new role, Smith would report to Kenny Lee, hired in mid-September as Hyundai Motor America's CEO, a role that had been filled on an interim basis by the U.S. arm's general counsel, Jerry Flannery, since the December ouster of Dave Zuchowski. Hyundai declined to comment on the prospect of hiring Smith.

Together, Smith and Lee would have a lot on their plate.

Among Hyundai Motor America's challenges: declining sales, a protracted recall of just more than a million vehicles because of engine problems, a car-heavy production mix and a lineup of crossovers that struggles to match up well with larger vehicles from competitors.

The new leadership must oversee the development of a separate dealership channel for the Genesis luxury brand, a delicate process that will involve cutting off some Hyundai dealers who were authorized to sell Genesis products, and preparing others to support a brand identity and a stream of new products.

Hyundai Motor America is also rolling out a new retail strategy called Shopper Assurance that it's counting on to revive sales, distinguish the Hyundai brand and build consumer loyalty through faster transactions and more transparent pricing.

Smith brings Hyundai experience in sales and dealer relations in the luxury market. Before his marketing post, he was vice president of sales and dealer development for Lexus for 31/2 years.

Another experienced Lexus hand, David VandeLinde, joined Hyundai in July as director of dealer service and parts process. VandeLinde had been service director for Kuni Lexus of Portland in Oregon. Before that he was a manager in parts and service for Toyota's New York and Los Angeles regions, and Lexus' central and western areas.

The past year has been tumultuous for Hyundai Motor America's sales operation. Soon after Zuchowski was fired over his failure to meet sales targets, Derrick Hatami quit as head of sales and took a post at Volkswagen. Sam Brnovich, Hyundai's southern regional general manager, took over many of Hatami's duties. U.S. sales through September are down 13 percent, amid a sharp decline in fleet sales and soft demand for cars.

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