Although there are several smart people in the auto industry—although fewer than the number who think they are among that group—there are some who have a particular wisdom combined with cleverness that seems to be so right, so natural, but which is so rare. Not all of these people are cast from the same mold. As I recently wrote about in the print issue of Automotive Design & Production, one of the people who has impressed me most of late is the former CEO of General Motors, Ed Whitacre (http://www.autofieldguide.com/columns/the-real-deal(2) ) . He’s a guy who came into an industry that he knew little about, having spent his career in the telecommunications industry, but who through his willingness to learn and his willingness to engage people at all levels of the organization, learned more in his short tenure at GM, measured in months, than plenty of people at that organization or others learn in their long tenures, measured in decades.
While one might say that there could be something about coming from the outside to get a clearer understanding of what’s what, that’s not always the case.
Because another of the smart individuals in the auto industry, whom I’ve had the privilege of knowing for a number of years, John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, has spent his career in the car industry.
Yet he, too, has the understanding, perspective, and willingness to ask questions that are essential for 21st century leadership in this industry.
Last week Krafcik made a keynote address to the National Auto Dealers Association’s annual meeting. And within his remarks there are a few clues to the approach that Hyundai has taken in the market that has caused it to set sales record after sales record to the extent that when the monthly sales come out, it seems like the metaphoric broken record.
Like this: “We like to say that when the whole industry moves to the left, we’ll have a look in that direction, but we’ll look even more intently at the opportunities on the right.”
There is too often a pack mentality in the auto industry or any other industry. You don’t become distinctive by doing what everyone else is doing, even if you do it better than they do. After all, even white noise has peaks and valleys, and it is all pretty much a hiss of something that’s not particularly motivating.
So it comes down to deliberately deciding that there may be better opportunities in another direction rather than trying to best the others.
Krafcik spelled out the company’s leadership philosophy: “Defy, design, delight.”
As for the first, it is difficult not to think of the Apple slogan: “Think Different.” That, I think, is what Krafcik means by “defy.” It isn’t about being pugnacious. Rather, it is about being counter to the accepted ways and means of doing things, without, however, tipping over the apple cart. There are some things that need to be retained. (E.g., he told the assembled dealers that Hyundai is happy with what they do.)
As for the second word, “design,” Krafcik said: “Eddie Opara, a partner at Pentagram, says it so well: ‘Design is not about solving problems. It’s about making people happy.’ Think about that for a moment. Design is about making people happy.”
You don’t make people happy by talking about making them happy. You make people happy by doing something that will lead to that state of being, and you do it by designing something that delights them, that doesn’t leave them, well, wrapped in a sensation of white noise.
Krafcik went on to say: “Traditionally, compact and mid-sized cars have been boring because market researchers concluded that vanilla design was acceptable to a larger population of buyers. Quality, safety and fuel economy were paramount. That’s what consumers told us. Consumers rarely actively asked for a hot-looking sedan. So design was secondary for many companies, for many years. Even at Hyundai.”
Enter the 2011 Sonata. Game on for design.
And now, arguably, every other automotive OEM is chasing Hyundai in design. Mind you, the 2010 was a perfectly fine car. It had cues from many of the cars in the mid-size category, so one might conclude that by selecting from column A, column B, and column C, it could be better than the cars from which its cues were captured. Nope.
Listen to Krafcik as he was wrapping up his remarks in a package that some undoubtedly found to be odd (status quo) and some found to be exhilarating (the ones who will be in business a few years from now), remarks that are applicable to dealers and designers, executives and engineers:
“We’ve always faced daunting challenges in this industry. And think of how full our plates are today, from the uncertainty in the economy and tax code, to the imperatives we have all taken on in fuel economy, mobile connectivity, vehicle safety, and the challenges of growing global mobility.
“In that uncertainty, in all of that challenge, within those winds of change, lie extraordinary opportunity for everyone.”
But not everyone will find—or even seek—that opportunity. Despite what they might say.