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[Foreign Execs in Korea: 1] Turning Hyundai Motor into agile global player

Former BMW engineer says the family-led firm will help seek sustainable, long-term strategy under Chung’s smart leadership

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of interviews with foreign executives at Korean firms on their role and vision for change, growth in the homogenous corporate world. -- Ed.

What drove the former BMW executive to take on the heart of the research and development unit of Hyundai Motor four years ago was the strategic vision of the carmaker’s heir and Korean engineers’ ambition for perfection.

In an interview with The Korea Herald, Albert Biermann, the head of R&D at Hyundai Motor and the first-ever foreign board member at the auto giant, said that his enthusiasm for Korea and the company remained high and that he was ready to turn the 51-year-old carmaker an “adaptive and agile” global player.

Albert Biermann, president of Hyundai Motor’s R&D division (Hyundai Motor)
Albert Biermann, president of Hyundai Motor’s R&D division (Hyundai Motor)

“When I met with Executive Vice Chairman Chung (Eui-sun) for the first time, I felt that his strategy for Hyundai Motor Group and my experience are matching quite well,” he said referring to his first encounter with the company’s de facto chief in 2014.

“After a period of hesitation, now under the smart leadership of Executive Vice Chairman Chung, we already made many decisions and strategies to speed up the whole company. We keep changing our company culture to become an even more adaptive and agile global player.”

The former BMW senior engineer joined Hyundai Motor in 2015 as the chief of the automaker’s performance development team, leading the N Project aimed at developing high-functioning vehicles. In recognition of the success of the N Project, he was promoted as the head of the carmaker’s R&D last year, a position previously held by former Vice Chairman Yang Woong-chul.

Under Biermann’s leadership, the N project has succeed in enhancing driving dynamics, and also wiping out the carmaker’s past image as a fast follower making cheap cars. The letter “N” stands for the name of Hyundai Global R&D Center located in Namyang, 50 kilometers south of Seoul, and also Germany’s legendary Nurburgring racing track. The carmaker has a test center there.

Behind the success of the N Project was an enhanced collaboration between the Namyang R&D center and its similar unit in Germany, said Biermann who goes by a Korean title, Biermann Sajangnim, meaning President Biermann.

“For the high-performance vehicle development we established an equal-level partnership between our European Technology Center in Germany and Namyang,” he recalled. “In Namyang I worked with our engineers directly to understand our operation and then we changed step by step and intensified the collaboration between different department. The better collaboration made better cars in a shorter time and today our cars are competitive even in the premium segment.”

Sales of Hyundai’s first car under its high-performance brand N have exceeded market expectations. The carmaker has sold 7,695 units of the i30N last year, twice more than what it had hoped for, according to the company.

Taking a step further, the German engineer in March joined the boardroom of Hyundai Motor Group, as the first foreign executive, breaking the company’s tradition of keeping its leadership exclusive from foreign participation.

The carmaker’s foreign hires of recent years have helped quickly turn the company more global inside and out. Starting with auto design guru Peter Schreyer in 2006, the company has recruited 12 foreign executives so far, quickly absorbing market insights and colorful perspectives that are much needed for its fast-expanding global operations. 

(Hyundai Motor)
(Hyundai Motor)

Integrating foreign staff to predominantly Korean workforce have been accelerating to help the latter group enhance their global and cultural skills. The company also has been sending talented staff to join overseas operations to experience foreign culture and business style, he said.

Hyundai Motor’s potential stems from Korean engineers, according to Biermann, describing them as “more ambitious and hungry” than German engineers for technical perfection.

“I think it is the strongest advantage for Hyundai engineers to enjoy new challenges consistently,” he said. “We are now in the process to apply our Korean powerhouse to our leading hydrogen technology. Our latest investments and partnerships for mobility and logistics services will secure our sales channels and provide new business opportunities.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Biermann expressed confidence of developing a fuel cell electric supercar -- Hyundai holds leadership in the fuel cell vehicle sector as of now. The company plans to announce its plan of developing a new platform and components that could be shared both by electric vehicles and fuel cell electric vehicles to significantly save costs, according to sources.

The rise of information technology and artificial intelligence opened the new door for small and large tech companies to enter centuries-old auto market that has been kept by a few number of auto giants.

Forging partnership with electronic and ICT companies is crucial, but Hyundai Motor itself will seek a transition from tradition carmaker, he said.

“Hyundai Motor Co. will also aggressively push for the transition from car manufacturers to smart mobility and logistics solution providers,” he said.

“Future mobility will become an opportunity to generate new values for customers and society. Even so, we will not forget those customers who love to drive inspiring and exciting vehicles.”

Working as a foreign executive himself at a Korean company, he often faces a number of challenges including language.

But interestingly, the Korean culture of company dinners that is often associated with heavy drinks has somehow helped him stay strong.

“The Korean culture of company dinner helped probably a lot to establish my strong position in R&D. Even though my colleagues tried very hard (to outdrink me), until today I never died in a company dinner. However, it was close several times,” he said jokingly.

(Hyundai Motor)
(Hyundai Motor)

In the eyes of the German engineer, Korean culture deeply rooted from Confucianism, such as respect for the elders, is seen as virtue, as well as respectively safe social environment.

“I think the respect for older person and the respect for the society is quite impressive in Korea ... Many virtues that I remember from my childhood in Germany are still alive here in Korea.”

When asked on his personal view on Hyundai’s fundamental strength, Biermann said the carmaker’s matrix as a family-led company will help the company continuously pursue a sustainable strategy.

“A lot of our strength is based on the fact that we are a family-owned Korean company with a sustainable, long-term strategy,” he said. ”We have a high responsibility for the Korean Peninsula and we are not driven by quick-win-oriented shareholders.”

The nation’s second-largest conglomerate has been seeking massive corporate restructuring on demand for transparent management and ownership.

In recent years, Hyundai has been battling with US activist fund Elliott.

Its 10 trillion won merger between Hyundai’s affiliates last year fell through on opposition of the world’s largest hedge fund, but the company in March won shareholders’ support for its 1.1 trillion won dividends plan, widely viewed by local media as a crushing victory for the company over Elliott. The company is widely expected to unveil a plan B for its corporate restructuring. Officials declined to comment on its plan. 

By Cho Chung-un (