In a society that puts a premium on respect for elders, Euisun Chung has spent decades in the background as his now octogenarian father led the Hyundai Motor Group. But, in recent years, the 49-year-old heir-apparent started to come out of the shadows, laying out some bold moves meant to position the South Korean carmaker as a leader in the rapidly changing global automobile industry.
Now, Euisun Chung will have the chance to prove he’s laid out the right course, this week formally succeeding his father as Hyundai Motor Group Chairman. Going forward, the company – which also includes the Kia and Genesis brands – wants to take a dominant role in technologies that include electric and autonomous vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells and even flying cars.
Under the 82-year-old Mong-Koo Chung, Hyundai has gone through radical change, transforming what was long seen as an automotive also-ran into a first-tier manufacturer. In typical Korean fashion, Euisun Chung referenced those achievements in a speech to Hyundai group employees in which he said, “Carrying on their bold and innovative legacies, I feel privileged, yet also a sense of great responsibility for opening a new chapter.”
Chung listed a variety of futuristic efforts as he outlined plans for his own time at Hyundai’s helm. That includes a new venture charged with producing the flying taxis that could back up services like Uber Elevate. It showed off a full-scale prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show this year, the multi-rotor SA-1. Then, earlier this month, Hyundai announced it will produce a full line-up of aerial vehicles for both passenger and cargo applications.
Chung sees plenty of more down-to-earth opportunities, as well. But even these could push boundaries. For the 2019 CES Hyundai revealed what it described as the “ultimate mobility vehicle,” a battery-powered concept with an articulated suspension and fold-out legs it envisioned maneuvering across boulder or rubble-strewn terrain to rescue injured skiers or those trapped following an earthquake or some other natural disaster. Last month, Hyundai announced that it would launch a new division charged with developing this and other extreme machines.
Hyundai also plans to invest close to $20 billion in battery, hydrogen and autonomous vehicles. It plans to roll out more than a score of all-electric models under its various brand names by the end of the decade.
The clearly ambitious Chung was left a good foundation by his father. With an 8.6% market share, the group is today the world’s fourth-largest automotive manufacturer, behind Toyota, Volkswagen and the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance. Interbrands, meanwhile, lists it as 36th among all companies in terms of global brand value.
Tellingly, a company once derided for its weak styling and poor quality is now seen as a design leader while its quality and reliability regularly ranks on top, according to arbiters like J.D. Power.
That said, Chung won’t be able to coast. Each of the new ventures is risky, charging into uncharted territory. It will go up against a lot of competition, particularly from new players like Tesla, when it comes to battery-, hydrogen- and autonomous-vehicle technologies. And Hyundai recently suffered an embarrassing setback when it had to recall more than 75,000 Kona EVs worldwide due to battery fires.
Hyundai’s first foray into the luxury market, the Genesis brand, has received high praise from journalists – the G70 sedan in 2019 voted North American Car of the Year – but sales still lag well behind key competitors.
Chung also will have to stake out a position on the Hyundai Mobis auto parts affiliate. His father attempted an outright acquisition two years ago but was fended off. It is seen as a key target for the new chairman. He became the third member of his family to run the Hyundai Motor Group and has the broadest global experience. He earned his MBA, for one thing, at the University of San Francisco.
One of the questions observers have been asking is how Chung will address the internal culture within Hyundai, one that follows the Confucian ideology of South Korea as a whole. Age is highly honored, and that can stifle creativity among younger employees. At just 49, however, Chung is significantly younger than many of the senior executives who now will report to him.
Taking a cue from the Bay Area where he earned his Masters degree, Chung said he plans to “foster a company culture that respects communication and autonomy. I will help cultivate a creative work environment, where talents are respected and realized to the fullest.”
That approach could be critical in signing up the young talent leading the development of EVs, AVs and other digital technologies. But it could put the new chairman at odds with the culture firmly entrenched at Hyundai.