Wilhite's Departure at Hyundai Could Be Ford's Win

Steve Wilhite resigned today from his post as COO of Hyundai Motor America. Wilhite has been known to be frustrated with the Korean management style and structure almost from day-one when he started in August of 2006. Hyundai is not on track to meet a sales target laid down by Korean management this year, and they have been unwilling to revise it to perhaps get in line with the reality of a softer auto market.

Rumors have swirled for weeks that Wilhite is among two executives that Ford has been considering for its global chief marketing officer post.

Prior to joining Hyundai, Wilhite was global chief marketing officer at Nissan, based in Tokyo. Wilhite, though, was known to be profoundly frustrated in that job because it had no budget. He was, in a sense, more of a global marketing consultant who had to sell a coherent strategy to each of Nissan’s operating units around the world, but with no carrots or sticks to force the issue.

Executives familiar with Ford’s search for a CMO say that the job had been structured the same way—with no operating budget under the control of the CMO. Under those conditions, Wilhite, say people close to him, would not be interested in the job. But his consultation with Ford execs, those same sources said, has moved Ford CEO Alan Mulally to re-think the paramaters and structure of the job to give the global CMO’s job real teeth and power.

Wilhite began his career at Ford in the 1970s. He moved onto Volkswagen. He returned to Volkswagen in the early 1990s when the company was doing so poorly that the company was considering leaving the U.S. market. As head of marketing, though, Wilhite led a brand renaissance at VW through savvy and clever advertising supplied by Arnold Worldwide. Ironocially, VW of America under new CEO Stefan Jacoby is also searching for a chief marketing officer.

Wilhite called a review of Hyundai’s ad account earlier this year, which resulted in Goodby, Silverstein of San Francisco winning the business.

Ford head of sales and marketing for North America Cisco Codina “retired” last week. While North America is Ford’s greatest problem and challenge, Ford’s Mulally has set out to create a focused brand strategy for the Ford b rand worldwide as he sells off the pieces of the Premier Auto Group (Volvo, Jaguar and Land Rover) to focus on the Blue Oval brand.

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