Saturday, March 04, 2006

Hyundai Kia Technical Center President Fosters Cross Cultural Cooperation

An upbeat story of Hyundai in America. ( I helped a little).

And may we wish your spouse a happy birthday?

Hyundai leader seeks to create an international family

Sunday, February 26, 2006
News Business Reporter

Here's a benefit to those working at the new Hyundai-Kia America Technical Center Inc.: spouses get flowers on their birthday.

It's a little thing that Won Suk Cho, president of the center, does for employees. The act gives a little insight on Cho, who came to Ann Arbor three years ago to help open the research, development and testing facility located in Superior Township.

Cho is one of Washtenaw County's most important business leaders, though his name may not be familiar to many people yet.

He feels that a family environment is important to building a strong company. And with an international staff that's growing geometrically, building a company culture requires the extra details like that.

He manages a staff of 150 now, but in four years, the already-expanding technical center could have closer to 1,000.

Cho said coordinating communication between people of different cultures can be challenging, but perhaps not as much in his line of work as in other areas.

"Engineering is sort of a common language to work with,'' said Cho, who has people from Japan, Korea, American Samoa, China, Europe and the U.S. working for him. "Each (culture) has strengths. I think we can create some synergy from it.''

>>>Don Southernton, an expert who has worked with Hyundai at helping Korean managers adjust to American culture, said the business culture in Korea has traditionally been authoritarian and hierarchical. But great efforts have been made over the past decade to adjust to the local markets where the companies are expanding.

>>>"With globalization, top Korean managers, many of whom have been schooled in Western universities, will follow the idea of being an authority versus being an authoritarian.''

Cho came to Ann Arbor already familiar with Americans - it was part of the reason he was chosen.

He received his doctorate in materials science from the University of Michigan. He spent four years in Ann Arbor during the mid-1980s with his wife and two young daughters. His wife, Young In Cho, also studied here, getting her master's degree in urban planning.

I wanted to get back to Ann Arbor. I missed my life here, he said. And the chairman and chief executive officer wanted me to locate here because I know Ann Arbor quite well.

Cho said Ann Arbor has a substantial Korean community, making it even easier to feel at home. There are restaurants, churches and even a professional engineering society called Korean-American Professionals in the Automotive Industries - KPAI.

Cho, who received his bachelor's and master's degrees in metallurgical engineering from Yonsei University in Seoul, said the University of Michigan is one of the best known American colleges, with a number of successful Korean business leaders having graduated from the school.

It was very natural to pick U-M for my advanced degree, he said.

While here, Cho landed on a project to design lighter engine materials for Ford Motor Co. and his entrance into the automotive world began.

After four years in Ann Arbor, where he worked on projects for Ford Motor Co. and developed an affinity for Michigan football, Cho moved on to Carnegie Mellon University for a post-doctoral fellowship. Then it was back to Korea, where he went to work for Kia Motor Corp., which later merged with Hyundai.

He rose through the ranks to become senior vice president before being tapped for the job in Ann Arbor.

He used his materials expertise to work on batteries and the environmental benefits of recycling technologies.

While HATCI primarily is doing testing and research to tune cars for the North American market, it also is heading up North American research in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. Cho personally delivered 10 hydrogen fuel cell cars in January to the Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District in California, where they will be tested in real-world conditions over five years.

He serves on a host of Korean professional society boards of directors and is a member of the National Academy of Engineering in Korea.

Cho said Hyundai's and Kia's early struggles in the North American market led to HATCI's creation.

At the time, we didn't understand the things we needed to be successful (in North America), he said. Hyundai realized that they needed to have a presence here to know what this market needed.

His main task over the next few years will be recruiting hundreds of new employees and overseeing the construction of a new set of buildings.

The additions will increase HATCI's profile, from a place that refines cars for the North American market to a full design studio where cars are designed specifically for this market.

The planned expansion, which is set to begin this summer, includes three new buildings and a small test road. The facilities include a new design center, including a design studio, a climatic chamber and a lab to measure engine performance. The company will add 600 jobs and another $164.75 million investment with three additional buildings.

I think we'd like to have a bigger role to develop our own vehicles just for the North American market, he said.

Mike Ramsey can be reached at or (734) 994-6864.

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