Nissan Exec Heads to Hyundai

DETROIT Hyundai has hired Steve Wilhite—until yesterday the senior vice president of marketing at Nissan—as its chief operating officer.

Wilhite will join Hyundai on Aug. 16. He had been at Nissan for five years, and the disclosure on Thursday of his departure “came out of left field,” a Nissan representative said.

At Hyundai, Wilhite will oversee “everything,” said company rep Chris Hosford, from marketing and sales to parts and communications. He will be based at the Korean automaker’s U.S. headquarters in Fountain Valley, Calif.

“He has a terrific background, but a lot of people in the ad industry think of him as just a marketing person,” said Hyundai’s Hosford. “He has retail dealership experience, and he worked for a retail group at one point. So he’s got a lot of good experience in addition to marketing and as we move to 500,000 sales this year, we know that the game gets tougher. And we want to make sure we have the best to lead the company forward.”

In a statement, Wilhite said, “The chance to be a part of growing sales, working directly with dealers again, and capturing and expressing who and what Hyundai is becoming is a challenge I couldn’t resist.”

Hyundai sales are up 4.6 percent from last year at 281,240 units, according to the company.

Before Nissan, Wilhite spent nine years at Volkswagen in the ’90s, including a stint as senior marketing executive, working on the “Drivers wanted” campaign from Arnold during his tenure.

At Nissan, Wilhite worked with lead agency TBWA\Chiat\Day, a unit of Omnicom Group. Nissan spent $1.1 billion on domestic ads last year and $410 million through May 2006, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus. (Those numbers include Infiniti ad spending.)

Hyundai works with independent The Richards Group. The carmaker spent $450 million on ads in 2005 and $230 million in the first five months of this year.

Nissan sales are off 6.6 percent this year and the company lost nearly 50 percent of its employees when it moved its headquarters from the Los Angeles area to Nashville, Tenn.

This story includes corrected Hyundai and Nissan ad spending figures.