Q&A with President and CEO Don Romano
1) You began your career in the automotive industry 29 years ago after initially pursuing a career as a pilot. Can you please tell us about your journey from aspiring pilot to piloting the Hyundai brand?
I was a competitive surfer growing up in Southern California. Surfing was my passion and, as a teenager, traveling around the world to explore the best surf spots seemed like a great vocation. I needed to find a way to earn a living while pursuing my dream, so I decided to be a pilot.
I accepted to an internship in the marketing department at the world’s largest air cargo company, the Flying Tigers Airlines. The income helped put me through my undergraduate program at California State University. In the morning, I would help with whatever they needed accomplished that day, but in the afternoon, I was able to train as pilot under the guidance of these elite professionals. I was barely out of my teenage years and training to fly DC8’s and 747’s.
Then, one day, I showed-up for work and discovered the doors were locked. The Flying Tigers had gone out of business.
I was devastated. It also left me with no way to pay for my university education or complete my pilot training. Driving home, I passed by Nissan’s U.S. headquarters and decided to take a chance. I applied and landed an entry level job in marketing. I was lucky, and grateful.
Working at Nissan allowed me to finish my university education, and upon graduation I was offered a full time position in marketing.
Working in the automotive industry was supposed to give me the means to finish training as a pilot. But, instead, I discovered a passion for this business I never knew existed. It quickly took over and I’ve never looked back. Now, 29 years later, I’m President and CEO of Hyundai Auto Canada, one of the country’s largest and most successful auto brands.
Oh yeah, and one day while visiting dealers in Nova Scotia, I discovered Lawrencetown – one of the best surf spots in the world.
I’m still living the dream.
3) and trends you have noted in the industry in the last five years?
The most significant change I’ve seen in the last five years is the pace of the industry. New technologies are being developed and introduced at rate that I never dreamed possible. Today’s vehicles are more fuel efficient, better equipped, well engineered, and better looking than ever before. For a customer who may only shop for a new car every five, six, or seven years, they’ll find a market filled with excellent choices from manufacturers they may never have considered before.
To break through, car companies are developing technologies for technology’s sake – features that grab attention in advertising, but are only available on the most expensive trim levels and deliver questionable real-world benefits. At Hyundai, we take a different approach; we democratize technology. Hyundai vehicles have features our customers actually use – like heated front and rear seats, panoramic sunroofs – and put them to our highest volume products.
I think the strategy is working. We have one of the highest rates of customers that are new to our brand and extremely strong customer loyalty. So, more and more people are discovering our brand and loving what they find.
4) What are some of your greatest passions in life outside of your role at Hyundai?
Hyundai keeps me pretty busy, but when I’m out of the office I’m pretty active. In the winter, my family and I find every excuse to hit the slopes on our snowboards. In the summer, we’ll spend as much time as we can outdoors. I’m a fairly competitive guy, so I’ve been known to join swim teams or participate in triathlons; anything that keeps me moving. And I can never give-up the chance to surf.
5) Hyundai has come a long way in its 30 years in Canada. What are the biggest contributing factors to its recent period of tremendous growth?
In a nutshell – we are making great cars that people want to drive. J.D. Power just recognized Hyundai as the top-performing non-luxury brand for initial quality. But great quality isn’t enough. Your cars and trucks also have to look good and be efficient, two qualities we really nailed with the current generation of products. I’m also excited about our growth in the SUV segment, in particular with the Tucson and Santa Fe. Families are driving them, urbanities are driving them – their wide appeal certainly contributed to remarkable growth in the sector.
6) As the new leader of the team, what are your plans for Hyundai?
My focus is on how Canadians experience and interact with the Hyundai brand. Our customers tell us that they already enjoy being part of the Hyundai family, but I think we can take that experience to a higher level. So, you will begin seeing a change in how Hyundai is positioned in the market. For example, our dealerships will be renovated to serve the new generation of product, like the new Genesis premium sedan and Sonata mid-size. We’re also looking at ways to improve the shopping experience both online and in dealerships to deliver a more premium experience.
7) How does Hyundai give back to Canada?
At Hyundai, we remain very community-minded. Hyundai and its dealers are investing in the next generation of Canadians through the Hyundai Hockey Helpers program that was launched in 2012. The program offers grants for equipment and registration fees to under-resourced kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get in the game. Over the last two years, we’ve helped almost 5,000 kids play hockey that normally would not have been able to play. We are proudly about to launch year three of this great program.
8) Tell us about Apple CarPlay and Android Auto – how is Hyundai involved?
We’re committed to bringing premium features into our vehicles that customers actually use, and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are excellent examples of this approach. These systems will allow a driver’s smartphone to ‘project’ onto the in-dash, touchscreen display and control selected apps and services through voice commands. Our plan is to make this technology available in the Canadian market in 2015.