Steve Wilhite Leaves Hyundai – Marketing Man on the Loose

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Readers of VehicleVoice may not be intimately aware of the folks running the various car companies, but their comings and goings can make for great stories. The recent career of Steve Wilhite, until last Friday Chief Operating Officer of Hyundai Motor America, promises to be one of the more interesting.

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Wilhite’s Career – Ford, Volkswagen, Apple, Nissan, Hyundai… NEXT?
Wilhite has been a well-regarded car marketer since he joined Volkswagen of America in the early ’90s and help turn the company around through innovative advertising campaigns. Of course, he picked up the ball after VW had stopped taking cars produced at their Puebla, Mexico assembly plant until quality was acceptable. At their lowest, Volkswagen sold less than 50,000 cars in one year.
Wilhite Credited with “Think Different”
Following VW, Wilhite joined Apple Computer as the chief marketer. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign came under Wilhites tenure and set the image of the Apple brand for the late ’90s and early ’00s. Apparently, working for Steve Jobs as a senior executive is not the easiest job in the world. Wilhite recounts stories of being summoned to Jobs’ home at oh-dark-thirty more than once to brainstorm Apple marketing issues.
Tokyo a Wrong Move
But the car industry beckoned again and after a brief interlude Wilhite joined Nissan North America as head of marketing and then moved to Tokyo as head of Nissan’s global marketing. Frustrating job. Great title, but no real power. Spouse hated Tokyo. Writing on the wall. Hyundai came along.

The Hyundai Year – August 2006 – September 2007

Wilhite joined Hyundai Motor America in August 2006 as their “current” Chief Operating Officer. Following the departure of Finbarr O’Neill the COO job at HMA had been a revolving door. In fact, Wilhite’s predecessor Bob Cosmai lasted a bit over a year. HMA missed his first year’s sales targets by less than 2,000 units and the second year by about 15,000. Didn’t meet his targets… assassinated.
Wilhite joined a company with extremely ambitious sales targets. A target of 1,000,000 units in the USA for 2010 was a one-time target – part of Hyundai’s Global Top Five strategy. Wilhite inherited a sales target of 555,000 units for the 2007 calendar year when he signed on. This was adjusted to 510,000 units as the reality of the 2007 calendar year became clearer. By the time he left, HMA was on track to sell a bit over 450,000 units. So, either the Koreans eliminated another top American, Wilhite got extremely frustrated with Korean management and not achieving goals, or Wilhite has a really good offer in the works from another car company.
Wilhite to Fill Ford’s Top Marketing Opening?
We’ll go with the other car company offer for the moment. Conjecture has it that Wilhite would be the perfect candidate for the top marketing job at Ford Motor Company. Ford is looking. In fact, General Motors may be looking for a replacement for their top marketing exec Mike Jackson who “left” earlier this year. Looks like Wilhite may have several juicy opportunities if he chooses to stay in the auto biz.
In any event, Hyundai has lost another top executive… an executive who understands the power of brand building and was putting plans in place to enhance the overall perception of Hyundai in the USA.

This article has 3 comments

  1. David Barrett 09/25/2007, 8:27 pm:

    While there is no doubt that everyone who works with Mr. Wilhite is impressed, be aware that he was nowhere NEAR the chief marketing guru for Apple. More accurately, Wilhite was the MarCom VP, responsible to TBWA/Chiat Day – the Apple Ad agency. The agency, whom was responsible for “think different,” and other late 90s programs, was also put on the block due to Apple’s Q4 2000 earnings. Wilhite left Apple in NOV of 2000 – so he did not work there in the “early 2000s” – and he left around the same time as Mitch Mandich, worldwide VP of Sales. Steve Jobs has ALWAYS been the company’s chief marketing man, while Phil Shiller has always held the number two spot. Perhaps Wilhite can find a home at VW again – they have some excellent new products, but weak sales that threaten their long-term prospects in North America.

  2. A Hyundai Dealer 10/09/2007, 3:52 pm:

    The general consensus among US Hyundai dealers is that Steve Wilhite’s tenure was a disaster. He started with a “we need to change everything” philosophy – never took the time to understand what was working and what wasn’t. His mantra was that we need to move quickly – even we get only 80% right we can go back later and fix the other 20%. Most people believe he got 80% wrong. Actual retail sales declined during his tenure – only masked by an increase in unprofitable sales to rental companies. The worst mistake made was forced elimination of the dealer advertising associations -because he thought share of voice means nothing. There are many markets in the US where share of voice went from the top 5 in the market to invisible and sales have responded accordingly. The current advertising campaign “Think About It” – (Wilhite rejected the campaign that was running when he arrived called “ReThink Everything” because he said it was too apologetic – is a 25 year old art directors dream – but is not at all reaching the intended target in a meaningful way. I am waiting to find out where he goes next so I can short the stock!

  3. Laurie F 10/03/2017, 7:17 pm:

    Worked with Steve for some time – while he is very personable, charismatic, and fun to be around he did not really add any value to the organization, if anything he made things much worse!

    he strongly pressured staff to come up with new ideas – fired ones that didn’t despite their strong performance and very skilled backgrounds, presumably to help buoy him during his tenure. This created a skills and experience gap that left sales scrambling for support – unwise for such a senior “experienced” marketing leader

    when you are a “legendary” marketing exec being paid well, one would think he would bring some ideas too.

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