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Hyundai CEO Steve Kelleher: Move from Mustang to Pony pays off

Toronto native left Ford in 1986 to help Hyundai build reputation in Canada

It’s been quite a journey for Hyundai in Canada, from its initial offering of the cheap little Pony hatchback in 1984 to three prestigious AJAC Car or SUV of the Year awards over the past five years.

President and CEO Steve Kelleher has been with the company for almost that entire journey. He?s also one of the few Canadians to hold the top position at any auto maker in Canada, and definitely one of the longest on the job.

?Most companies put someone in the president?s position, but then they rotate him or her out of there and into another role in the world, and it?s seen as a progression for management,? says the 60-year-old. ?The Koreans take a different approach. They want local leadership, somebody that knows Canada and is able to provide them with that input.?

Kelleher doesn?t speak Korean (?I only know how to order a beer,? he quips), so he depends on a group of Korean natives in his major departments, who deal directly with their counterparts in Seoul.

?My job is largely directional and making sure that what the factory is looking at doing in the future aligns as much as possible with what our needs are in Canada,? he says.

?The most crucial part of the job is making sure that Canada?s input is there. It could be something like heated seats, which weren?t on the table until we put it there. It sounds like a small item, but it became a big thing for us in our compacts and subcompacts, and it gave us a leg up on our competitors.?

Kelleher grew up in Toronto, but his hockey skills earned him a scholarship at Cornell University in New York, where he studied business administration. He got a job with Ford, working first at the company?s parts distribution centre in Bramalea, and then at its warehouse in Vancouver.

?Finally, I worked in Ford?s systems and analysis area, which gave me a good knowledge across the whole spectrum of an operation,? he says. ?And then, lo and behold, this company Hyundai started up. The guy I reported to in my last job at Ford moved to Hyundai, and he lured me over in 1986.?

It was a leap of faith, he says, including the fact that his company car downgraded from a Mustang GT to a Pony.

?Ford was a great company, but it?s a big organization,? he explains. ?I thought, if I could come over and help build this company into a player in the market, that I probably had opportunities to grow faster than I would at Ford. There are so many other people there vying for the same position, and it takes longer to move up the ladder.?

Up the Hyundai ladder he went, becoming the director of parts and service in 1995 and, two years later, vice-president of sales and marketing as well. He was named president and CEO in 2002.

The position came with challenges, especially in 2004 when the company started to move away from its cheap-?n?-cheerful image.

?We had about 150 dealers and, being frank, a lot of them weren?t much more than gas stations,? Kelleher says. ?The product onslaught was about to happen, and I knew we had to get our dealer body ready to sell these things. We went with a program that had some dealers spending close to $3 million apiece to renovate or put up a new store.

?I had to make some tough decisions, and we culled some dealers that weren?t prepared to get on the ride, but we got our dealer network to where I think it?s one of the stronger networks in the country.?

Surprisingly, Kelleher credits a lot of his success to the fact that he isn?t a car enthusiast.

?Sometimes, a passion for vehicles doesn?t necessarily lead to the best business decisions,? he says. ?We might be ordering more of our sportier cars than we should, or high-level luxury cars that have everything. You have to temper that enthusiasm and make sure you?re bringing in product that the consumer wants and what the market will bear.?

But he did indulge one passion: last year, he started Hyundai Hockey Helpers, which works with Hyundai dealers and the not-for-profit organization KidSport to help underprivileged children get in the game.

?When I saw there were thousands of kids who weren?t able to play because of the high cost, it floored me,? he says. ?For kids, not being able to play because their parents couldn?t afford it seemed wrong.

?I thought it was good corporate social responsibility to make a difference and, last year, we were able to put 1,879 kids into hockey that otherwise wouldn?t play. This year, our goal is to exceed 2,500.?

Kelleher hung up his own skates when he became president. ?They would have to have an ambulance backed up to the rink if I ever tried to play now,? he laughs.

But he has no intention of leaving Hyundai. ?I?ll stay until they kick me out. I?ve been here a long time, but I?m still enjoying the ride.?

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