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Hyundai Names New CEO of American Unit

September 09, 1998|PATRICE APODACA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hyundai Motor America Inc., the South Korean auto importer that has been struggling with weak sales and management turnover, said Tuesday it has named Finbarr O'Neill as its president and chief executive.

O'Neill, 46, had been serving as the Fountain Valley company's interim chief operating officer since Robert Parker abruptly resigned in February. A lawyer and former Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. executive, O'Neill has been Hyundai Motor America's general counsel since the company was formed in 1985.

His appointment ends the car maker's long search for an American manager for its U.S. distributor, a move considered important to relations with domestic dealers. O'Neill will report to M.H. "Mark" Juhn, who was promoted to chairman of Hyundai Motor America and Hyundai Auto Canada. Juhn had been president of both organizations since moving here from Seoul in January 1997.

Industry insiders said several executives from rival car companies had interviewed for the CEO post, but terms couldn't be reached. O'Neill said his appointment now "moves the focus away from the issue of who will manage Hyundai Motor America" and will allow the company to focus on selling its products.

As sales of Hyundai cars have stalled, rumors have plagued the U.S. distributor that it was headed for the junk heap. Whether O'Neill's appointment marks a turning point is unclear, but analysts said the company faces a difficult fight to win back the confidence of dealers and customers.

"The company has a real challenge on its hands in terms of turning itself around," said consultant George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc. in Santa Ana.

Hyundai's mid-1980s' launch in the United States was one of the most successful ever by a foreign car company.

But Hyundai's economy car, the Excel, became plagued with quality problems. The company's sales deteriorated, and some dealers left. Last year, it sold less than half the number of cars it sold in the U.S. in its peak year, 1988. Sales through August of this year were off nearly 8% from the first eight months of 1997.

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