SEOUL Peter Schreyer, known for his design contributions to the iconic Audi TT, became the first foreign president of Kia Motors Corp (000270.KS) as the South Korean carmaker enters the next phase of its branding transformation.
Schreyer, who joined Kia from Volkswagen AG (VOWG_p.DE) in 2006 and was subsequently linked to the rise of the Hyundai Motor Co (005380.KS) affiliate, was promoted from chief design officer and executive vice president on Friday.
The promotion is a clear sign of Kia and Hyundai Motor's ambition to outdo German rivals Volkswagen and BMW (BMWG.DE) in design - a key part of a strategy that has helped the South Korean duo ramp up sales and gain market share even during the global economic downturn in 2009.
"We should not have let him go," Volkswagen's Chairman Ferdinand Piech told Automotive News in an interview in November.
Born in Germany in 1953, Schreyer was reportedly brought in by then Kia president Chung Eui-sun - the only son and heir apparent of the 74-year-old Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo.
Before joining Kia, Schreyer thought Kia's designs were "neutral."
"I thought I wanted to give Kia a character and a family feel... If you come to a country and you see a Kia, you should recognize it immediately, like you recognize a BMW or Mercedes immediately," he said in an interview with Reuters in March.
Schreyer went on to create a "tiger-nose" grille for Kia, previously known for its nondescript but value-for-money image.
In one stroke, the former Audi designer gave a distinct face to Kia models ranging from the small Picanto to the Forte and Optima sedans.
Kia, acquired by Hyundai Motor in 1998 during the Asian financial crisis, has been expanding sales at a faster pace than Hyundai Motor in markets such as the United States and Europe.
Combined, Kia and Hyundai Motor rank fifth in global car sales.
Inspired by Schreyer's success, Hyundai Motor poached ex-BMW designer Christopher Chapman to head its U.S. design centre this year.
WORK IN PROGRESS
Kia's transformation is yet complete.
K9, Kia's first rear-wheel drive luxury sedan, is not doing well in South Korea. Sales reached 405 vehicles in November, less than a quarter of a sales target of 2,000 a month.
"Kia is in a situation where Audi was 30 years ago, and even longer," Schreyer said during a lecture at Yonsei University in Seoul in May.
This is "an adventure, positive adventure," he said, wearing his signature black suit and horn-rimmed glasses.
He also said that Kia, which jointly conducts research and development with Hyundai Motor, needs to further improve its technology.
"BMW is famous for engines. This is the core of BMW, the path they will not leave. They're investing a lot in technology," he said at the lecture.
Schreyer said in March he does not plan to leave Kia.
"I kind of feel that I belong to Kia," he told Reuters.
(Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Editing by Ryan Woo)