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Genesis of a dream team: Luxury is not invented here, yet

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It all started back in 2006 when Kia Motors announced that Peter Schreyer would become its new Chief Design Officer. At the time, this move seemed equally audacious and puzzling: smart hire by Kia boss Eui-sun Chung, the son of Mong-koo Chung, the billionaire chairman and CEO of Hyundai Motor Group (HMG), but perhaps foolish for Schreyer. After all, what could the smaller automaker offer besides handsome compensation, frequent flyer miles, and a top-down corporate culture? Schreyer, a legit rock star in the design world (with the back-in-black wardrobe to match), already had an impressive résumé that listed icons such as the VW Golf, New Beetle, and Audi TT. He was on the short list to replace VW Group’s design chief, Walter de Silva. Surely, Schreyer had nothing to prove.

His fast start suggested otherwise. At the 2007 Frankfurt Motor Show, Schreyer introduced the Kia “tiger nose” design cue and began unifying all styling in this aggressive new direction. Meanwhile, seemingly unrelated moves were afoot at HMG; at the 2007 New York auto show, the Hyundai Genesis luxury sedan made its debut. In 2011, Hyundai Motor Europe started durability testing at the Nürburgring, and in 2012, HMG quietly established the high-performance development N division, ostensibly named for HMG’s Namyang, Korea, R&D center.

After a string of successful designs, Kia named Schreyer president in December 2012, making him the first non-Korean president (of seven) at HMG. A few months later, he added head of design for all of HMG to his title and list of duties. That same year, HMG expanded its European testing capabilities by establishing a permanent R&D facility at the Nürburgring. Then things really began to accelerate.

In another startling coup in April 2015, HMG poached Albert Biermann, a 30-year veteran of BMW and boss of its legendary M division. His new job? Leading high-performance vehicle development and testing for all of HMG, including Genesis—which was subsequently announced as a stand-alone luxury brand that November.

Any doubts about HMG’s commitment to its new premium marque were quelled by the hiring of Bentley head of design Luc Donckerwolke and Lamborghini director of brand and design Manfred Fitzgerald. When Bentley’s head of exterior and advanced design, SangYup Lee, and Bugatti Chiron exterior designer Alexander Selipanov joined the Genesis team in 2016 and 2017, respectively, the world officially took notice.

But HMG wasn’t done yet, with Biermann apparently calling the shots. In October 2017, Fayez Rahman joined as vice president of Genesis architecture development. Rahman previously led development for several BMW models, including the 7 Series, X crossover models, and M vehicles. Then in February 2018, Thomas Schemera, the former U.S. head of BMW M, joined Hyundai’s performance and motorsport division.

So what? Raiding talent from the competition is Business 101, right? Yes, but HMG’s singular focus on pulling design and engineering experts from top-tier luxury and performance brands to support Genesis is unprecedented in the history of the automotive business.

Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti have long been bastions of “not invented here” syndrome, a corporate mindset that grew out of hubris mixed with the sting of critics that accused their ascendant parent companies of knowing nothing more than how to copy the design and technology of established rivals. So it was no surprise that in the ’80s, when Honda, Nissan, and then Toyota began probing the luxury space, their efforts were almost entirely homegrown and lavish.

At the time, Japan Inc. had money to burn, so spending hundreds of millions studying the premium car buyer, researching names and logos, and even establishing custom marketing and advertising agencies (as Lexus did with Team One) made cultural sense for these companies on the rise and swelling with pride. To this day, the guiding principle of the Toyota Way is “genchi genbutsu” or “go and see for yourself.” Yet despite roaring into the space with such game changers as the Acura Legend, Lexus LS 400, and Infiniti Q45, after 30-plus years, none of the Japanese premium brands has established itself as a global rival to the German establishment.

HMG could have taken the same path as Honda, Nissan, and Toyota. It certainly has the war chest and homegrown talent in the areas of design, manufacturing, and technology. It also has a business culture steeped in pride and competition. But by acknowledging that veteran outsiders might know the premium space better—and building a dream team led by these experts and mentors—Genesis may just reinvent the luxury car.

More from Ed Loh:

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