Given much of the credit from helping transform the brand’s traditionally cheap and dowdy image, German-born styling chief Peter Schreyer has been named one of three president at Kia Motor Corp.
It marks not only one of the rare occasions when a senior stylist has achieved such a lofty position at a major car company but also makes Schreyer the first foreigner to hold such a senior spot in the fast-growing Korean auto industry.
“The promotion shows Kia’s key focus areas shifting from production and cost efficiency, which were traditionally considered more important, to design and research and development,” suggested Seoul-based analyst Shin Chung Kwan, of KB Investment & Securities. “It also symbolizes Kia’s urge to advance as a global company, showing a foreigner could make it to one of the top positions.”
Traditionally, senior management of Asian manufacturers has been a closed affair, though that has begun to change in recent years. French automaker Renault put Carlos Ghosn in charge at Nissan when it effectively took control of the Japanese maker in 1999, and Ford put several Western executives in charge of Mazda before selling off its controlling stake in the Hiroshima-based company. Toyota has given a board position to Jim Lentz, meanwhile, its top American executive.
But until now, Korean makers have resisted that trend.
Schreyer appointment came as he celebrated his 59th birthday last week. The widely heralded designer joined Kia in 2006 after spending most of his career with Volkswagen AG – where he began working at Audi while still a student in 1978.
He was credited with much of the design effort on the so-called New Beetle launched in 1998, but Schreyer’s most significant works came while at Audi where he took credit for such groundbreaking models as the TT, A3, A4 and A6.
“We should not have let him go,” Volkswagen Chairman Ferdinand Piech told Automotive News last year.
But Schreyer was clearly drawn to the idea of helping transform Kia, a brand that had nearly gone out of business a decade earlier, saved only with the help of the once-rival Hyundai. Part of the challenge was to come up with designs that would give Kia products a more distinctive and elegant look, helping move away from a bargain basement appearance that could only be sold at a discount. But the other challenge was to achieve that stylistic transformation even while sharing most of Kia’s new platforms with Hyundai.
Known for his typically all-black clothing and Philippe Starck designer glasses, Schreyer’s approach was first signaled at the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show when Kia revealed the Kee concept vehicle. It featured what he dubbed the “Tiger Nose,” explaining his goal of developing, “a powerful visual signal, a seal, an identifier. The front of a car needs this recognition, this expression. A car needs a face and I think the new Kia face is strong and distinctive.”
The Tiger Nose has become a hallmark of Kia products ever since, notably the midsize Optima.
Schreyer will remain Kia’s chief design officer even as he takes on additional duties. He will report to Chung Mong Koo, who serves as chairman of both Kia and Hyundai Motor Co. It was Chung’s son, Chung Eui Sun, who hired Schreyer.
Over the decades, designers have often held enormous influence in the auto industry. General Motors’ first design chief, Harley Earl, was among the most powerful men in the company for many decades. Chrysler’s Tom Gale was among a small group of managers who turned around and then steered the maker during its golden days in the 1980s and into the 1990s.
But a handful of designers have begun to show their talents in other areas, including Ralph Gilles, Chrysler’s current top stylist, who has headed the maker’s Dodge division while also retaining his design duties. Meanwhile former Aston Martin styling chief Henrik Fisker is serving as chairman of the eponymous Fisker Motors, though it remains to be seen if the battery-carmaker can survive its current fiscal challenges.