SEOUL/DETROIT, April 10 (Reuters) - Oh Kwang-teak recently spent $310 on a haircut and beauty care at a salon in Seoul's upscale Cheongdamdong district before splashing out $1,100 at a five-star hotel, which, if asked, will fill your bath with chocolate milk. He also visited Hermes and Cartier stores, while his wife had an expensive massage.
All in the name of research.
Oh sells Hyundai Motor cars and is part of a select group of the South Korean firm's dealers tasked with seeing first-hand what makes premium service brands tick - and applying that to Hyundai cars.
His pampering illustrates how the Asian automaker is trying to burnish a reputation for quality and banish the jibes of the past, when its Accent sub-compact was dubbed the "Accident" and its boxy Trajet 7-seater the "Tragic".
When it started making cars four decades ago, Hyundai had to make do with borrowed designs, engines, suspension and transmission technology.
Now the world's fifth-biggest carmaker, with affiliate Kia Motors, Hyundai is the envy of global rivals, outgrowing the market during a severe industry downturn by offering stylish models at affordable prices backed by savvy, if sometimes risky, promotions and helped by a cheaper currency.
Hyundai has invested heavily to improve design and create a luxury halo around its brand, though customers are not yet queuing up to pay more because it's a Hyundai. Profit growth is not assured and the firm is taking a measured approach in capacity and new product launches.
"We want our cars to be valued as something like Apple's iPhone, not Samsung's Galaxy. They give different customer satisfaction," Sean Kim, senior vice president of Hyundai's domestic marketing group, told Reuters at his office.
"We want to shed the image that Hyundai makes cheap cars. Volkswagen is a volume car maker like us, but charges 10-20 percent more, and we want to be viewed as such a premium car maker," said Kim.
That's where Oh's recent luxury splurge comes in.
"I've never been to these places before, but now I understand why consumers like to spend there. They (luxury brands) don't emphasize how expensive their products are. Instead, they try to explain why they're worth it.
"Now I do the same thing. I focus more on explaining a car's history, its value and its strengths, rather than just talking about price," said Oh, who on average sells 10 cars a month.
The company, which won headlines and plaudits during the financial crisis when it said owners in the United States could return their cars for free if they lost their job within a year, is also chasing younger aspirational buyers to wrest market share from Volkswagen's Golf.
The canny marketing coup made Hyundai the only major carmaker to gain U.S. market share during the downturn.
In the same vein, the Korean firm recently stocked its main local dealerships with premium foreign marques such as the BMW 5 Series, Mercedes Benz E-class and Lexus ES350 so consumers could test drive and compare them directly with Hyundai's own models.
This all fits with a track record of Hyundai making bold bets.
Bob Martin, a former top Hyundai U.S. executive and now a senior consultant at product development firm The CARLAB, recalled how the firm's U.S. launch in 1986, selling just the Excel, or Pony model, exceeded all expectations.
"It was incredible, but (by 1988) those of us tasked to look forward were raising red flags saying, 'We've got some serious long-term problems because these cars are not living up to expectations and the quality is sub-standard'."
"Everyone's fat, dumb and happy, and then the slide started and it became a real challenging place to work, a lot of finger pointing," Martin told Reuters.
"Everyone had gotten drunk on the Kool-Aid and the big annual bonuses. But the cars were falling apart."
Describing himself as the chief protagonist behind the turnaround strategy in 1997, Martin recalled how Hyundai was caught in a "classic death spiral with all the symptoms of 'this is going nowhere'."
"We were leading the league in incentives and still not moving the metal," he said.
Finbarr O'Neill, who led Hyundai's U.S. operations from 1998 to 2003, recalls how business, and the quality perception, were changed by a decision by autocratic top management to introduce a 10-year/100,000 mile warranty in the United States.
"There was a lot of resistance to it, but Hyundai was looking over the precipice and couldn't sustain itself selling four models of around 90,000 units a year," recalled O'Neill, now head of influential J.D. Power and Associates.
"There was a willingness of management in Korea to take the risk. The financial types were quick to point the finger and say: 'You're going to bankrupt us.'"
With the eye-catching warranty programme and incremental improvements in style and quality, Hyundai revived its U.S. sales. By last year, sales had grown seven-fold to 646,000 cars, giving Hyundai its best-ever share of the market, 5.1 percent.
Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong-koo is credited for leading the quality transformation since he took over in 2000.
"He would have monthly meetings. They were brutal. He was demanding performance. It was not good to go in there and tell him we'd failed on a quality issue," said O'Neill.
Martin, too, recalls Chung's obsession with quality.
"There was always a mandate for quality improvement, but this guy is a fanatic about it. When he came in, product quality went from a very important initiative to 'If you're not improving product quality, you're fired at lunch.'
"If I had to boil it down to what are the secrets of Hyundai: No.1, you're not going to outwork the Koreans. It's indisputable. No.2, middle management is thin. The decision-making process is quick when necessary. When the chairman says, 'We're going to do this,' it's just done. It's not like Toyota where you have consensus management. Hyundai moves at lightning speed. And No.3, the chairman. When the chairman says 'You will achieve this', that's the end of the discussion," Martin said.
Chung still chairs a quality meeting with top executives twice a month, according to quality chief Shin Myeong-ki.
"We do not need to build more plants. Producing 8 million (vehicles a year) is sufficient," Chung recently told his senior managers, sources familiar with the matter said. "We are already seeing signs of growing pains, and should now direct our focus on qualitative growth."
At its Seoul headquarters, Hyundai runs a round-the-clock "quality situation room", collecting reports of problems from around the world and relaying them to the relevant departments. This allows Hyundai to respond with quick fixes - a failure that cost bigger Japanese rival Toyota Motor reputational damage when it was slow to react to a massive safety issue in the United States in 2009/10.
Behind Hyundai's rapid growth also lies government support in keeping the won currency relatively cheap and insulating the domestic car market from foreign imports.
Four of every five cars sold in Korea are Hyundai or Kia, leaving foreign brands with just a 10 percent share to fight over. But that share was less than 1 percent in 2000 - a warning sign for Hyundai/Kia and Korea's other smaller automakers.
Overseas sales now account for 83 percent of Hyundai's total, up from 54 percent in 2000 - a period that has seen the won weaken by just 3 percent, while the yen has strengthened by nearly a third, hitting rivals Toyota, Nissan Motor and Honda Motor.
Whenever Chung, 74, travels abroad he is usually seen off at the airport by his son Chung Eui-sun, Hyundai Motor vice chairman, in a Confucian show of respect to parents.
At some stage it will be the younger Chung - Eui-sun is 41 - who will be tasked with ensuring Hyundai's renaissance is a longer-term success story - a tough ask at a time when Chinese carmakers are the 'new Hyundai' of old - replicating its success in being competitive through cheap labour, an undervalued currency and government support for local carmakers.
"The same thing could happen to them. It's a wave, a cycle. The Japanese had their successful run and, before that, the Americans," said Nissan's Chief Creative Officer Shiro Nakamura.
Those working at Hyundai and former executives say the junior Chung is a details man, and will continue the mix of autocratic family ownership and professional management.
"He's a very patient listener, tenacious, and he has a real insight into the auto business," said one executive, who didn't want to be named. "He points out things that executives, often with two decades in the industry, failed to notice."
Hyundai, which a decade ago resorted to filling its booths at international motor shows with its own staff to make it seem busy, had a 10.4 percent operating margin last year, the highest among the global top-five auto makers and only topped by premium carmaker BMW, which had 11.7 percent.
Rivals are equally impressed and puzzled by its success.
Checking out a Hyundai model at last September's Frankfurt Motor Show, Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn was caught on film checking the steering wheel adjustment, and saying: "Nothing rattles ... Why can they do it? BMW can't. We can't." The YouTube clip has had more than 1.7 million hits.
In February, Hyundai's senior managers were summoned to something akin to a secret chamber in the headquarters complex- a spacious first-floor corner room that has no obvious door but which opens at the pull of a ring-shaped knob.
Inside, they were asked to evaluate the design of the next-generation Genesis premium sedan due to be unveiled late next year. To help them gauge its merits, it was parked alongside competing BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi models, said one of those taking part.
"The style is so different from what we've seen so far. I've never seen BMW looking so shabby," a Hyundai executive who saw the design said, asking not to be identified as he is not authorised to talk to the media.
Hyundai's investment in design has its rivals talking.
"(Hyundai) gave a lot of power to the design chief and threw resources at it," said Honda's creative director Toshinobu Minami. "Everything was done for design. Hyundai and Kia steered the company with the view that the whole company needed to focus on design with a 10-year view. Until then, it was about cost."
Hyundai poached ex-BMW designer Christopher Chapman to head its U.S. design center, while Kia hired Peter Schreyer, a former Volkswagen/Audi designer.
"To be honest, I don't pay much attention to the Japanese any more. It's the Koreans, and nowadays also General Motors and Ford that we look at," said Nakamura, chief creative officer at Nissan, likely this year to be Japan's most profitable carmaker.
One top executive at a rival carmaker, though, has dubbed Hyundai's costly design drive as "maximum design, minimum investment."
A quick look at major automakers' annual reports shows Hyundai spent 1.9 percent of revenue on research and development last year, versus more than 5 percent at both VW and BMW.
Critics say Hyundai's aggressive design push has split customers and risks driving away as many as it attracts - not a recipe for big volume sales.
"If you look at the No.1 reason someone buys a Sonata, it's styling. If you look at the No.1 reason someone rejects a Sonata, it's styling," said Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Lentz. "It's very polarizing, and polarizing is good if you want to sell a certain volume of product."
The re-styling of the Sonata, critics say, will not bring the sales volumes of Toyota's Camry or Corolla, or Honda's Accord or Civic. Style-wise, the Camry is seen as safe, dull and plain-vanilla, yet it's America's best-seller.
"The Sonata and Elantra need to be the 300,000 unit plus vehicles that they can be. When they do that, they'll be within reach of the 1 million mark in the United States," said O'Neill.
Oh Suk-geun, head of Hyundai Design Center, said the company needed a strong design message to stand apart from the pack.
"In the past (our designs) were so quiet that people weren't able to understand what we were trying to convey. Now they say our design is 'talkative' - we speak aloud and everyone recognizes our design identity," he told Reuters.
But the push to premium hasn't won everyone over.
One businessman in Seoul who drives a BMW 520D and gave only his surname, Suh, said Hyundai cars were expensive, and raising prices was just a way to make customers think they were making premium cars. "There's a limit to the Hyundai brand."
"Even if it's a premium car, it's still a Hyundai."