W. Greg Warner, a longtime auto industry executive and chief operating officer of Kia Motors America Inc. since its founding in 1991, died Tuesday night of heart failure triggered by an acute attack of asthma.
The 54-year-old resident of Huntington Beach, Kia's top U.S. executive, collapsed while dining with friends at a Laguna Beach restaurant and was pronounced dead by doctors at South Coast Medical Center, where he was taken by paramedics.
Warner, whose passions included skiing and boating, was the first American executive of an Asian auto company to sit on the parent company's corporate board, a post he held from 1994 through 1996.
His death stunned colleagues at Irvine-based Kia and throughout the Southern California auto industry.
"It still hasn't hit us; we're all shocked," said Geno Effler, Kia Motors America's communications director and one of the first people Warner hired when he began putting together a corporate staff for the then-unknown South Korean car company.
Warner, who began his career as a 23-year-old market analyst for Ford Motor Co., was asked by Kia in 1991 to advise it on the prospects of entering the U.S. market. He was hired to set up the U.S. company in 1992.
He supervised a skeleton crew of 13 during the initial planning stages, oversaw the launch of U.S. sales in February 1994, and most recently had been directing the continued expansion of Kia's dealership network throughout New England and the Midwest.
Warner had been part of the team that set up rival Hyundai Motor America's historic U.S. launch in 1985. He has said that company was hurt by the insistence of its South Korean parent on a nationwide sales push that concentrated the company's efforts on volume rather than quality.
"He was personally responsible for the successful establishment of both of those companies in the U.S.," said auto industry consultant George Peterson, founder of AutoPacific Inc. in Santa Ana.
Warner, Peterson said, "built a world-class management team and distribution and marketing system for Hyundai," whose later problems have been blamed on South Korean executives' reluctance to take advice from their U.S. managers.
Warner was Hyundai Motor America's chief operating officer in 1990 when he left in a dispute with company officials in South Korea over quality problems that had sent Hyundai's record-setting U.S. sales tumbling.
At Kia, Warner insisted on what he called a "deliberate and methodical" approach to building market presence. The company began U.S. sales in 1994 with a handful of dealerships in Seattle and spread down the West Coast, across the Sunbelt and Gulf states and up the Eastern Seaboard.
While still a small player in the U.S. market, the company now has 370 dealers in 35 states and has posted sales increases almost every month since its launch.
Warner, a native of Southern California and a 26-year resident of Orange County, was a single parent of a daughter, Jenny, and a son, Erik, both students at Marina High School in Huntington Beach.
He obtained a master's degree in business administration at USC after completing his undergraduate work at UCLA. He often joked that he loved to watch the two schools compete in sporting events, because his alma mater never lost.
Funeral arrangements are pending.