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Hyundai’s U.S. head steps down amid shakeup of global operations

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Kyung Soo Lee: Taking advisory role

A little over a year after taking the helm, Hyundai Motor America CEO Kyung Soo Lee has left the position to return to South Korea as an adviser for the company.

Hyundai did not name a replacement and did not elaborate on when the position will be filled, spokesman Yong Sohn in Seoul said Monday.

Sohn said it was “part of a regular groupwide personnel change.”

Lee, who goes by “Kenny,” took the lead of Hyundai’s operations in the U.S. in September 2017 after working as interim chief for nearly nine months. He filled a post formerly held by Dave Zuchowski, who was fired in December 2016 for failing to meet internal sales targets.

Lee’s departure comes as Hyundai confronts mounting pressure to address reports about noncollision engine fires in some of its vehicles.

The Center for Auto Safety has urged Hyundai and its Kia sibling brand to recall almost 3 million crossovers and sedans for potential fires that could erupt while people are driving. Meanwhile, Congress has invited on the regional CEOs of Hyundai and Kia to appear Nov. 14 before the Senate Commerce Committee, the same panel that grilled Mary Barra over faulty ignition switches just weeks into her tenure as General Motors CEO.

Last week, the global CEOs of both companies pledged their cooperation with regulators in addressing concerns but said it was still undecided whether their U.S. representatives would go before lawmakers in Washington.

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Global personnel changes

Hyundai also announced on Monday it has created two entities to develop future technologies and appointed new heads of product strategy and design in a reshuffle, as it battles plunging profits that have pushed its shares to almost nine-year lows.

The shakeup at Hyundai and its affiliate Kia comes a month after it promoted heir-apparent Euisun Chung to executive vice chairman, moving him a step closer to succeeding his octogenarian father as head of the group.

The group created an artificial-intelligence lab to focus on developing mobility services, the duo said in a joint statement. It also created a fuel cell electric vehicle business division to double down on hydrogen vehicles.

Chung has hired outsiders, including foreign executives from premium brands, to the company dominated by Koreans.

Thomas Schemera, who was hired from BMW to oversee Hyundai’s high-performance car division in March, would be responsible for product planning for autonomous cars, connected and electrified vehicles, Hyundai said in a statement.

Luc Donckerwolke, a former Bentley design chief who started his stint at Hyundai in 2016, will be design head, replacing Peter Schreyer, who last month took over a new role as head of design management.

Analysts have raised concerns that Hyundai is lagging at embracing new technologies such as self-driving cars, electric cars and ride-sharing services, with the race for future technologies intensifying.

Hyundai said the overhaul was part of its efforts to accelerate innovation to achieve sustainable growth.

The reshuffle came after Hyundai Motor reported last week that its third-quarter net profit plunged by two-thirds, hit by a $440 million one-off charge related to U.S. recalls.

The recall headaches add to a plethora of issues at Hyundai, which had counted on new crossovers to engineer a recovery following five straight years of annual profit declines stemming from weak sales in its key U.S. and Chinese market.

“The reshuffle came more than one month earlier than Hyundai’s usual executive shake-ups … and is seen as an attempt to address market concerns about its earnings,” the head of corporate analysis firm CEO Score, Park Ju-gun said.

It also underlines Chung’s focus on design and future technologies, he said.

All eyes are now on the year-end management reshuffle involving top executives such as vice chairmen and presidents, he said. Monday’s reshuffle mostly affected executive vice presidents.

Hans Greimel and Reuters contributed to this report.

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