John Krafcik

An abrupt executive shakeup at Hyundai

December 27, 2013: 4:31 PM ET

One of the most sought-after automotive executives suddenly became available Friday when Hyundai Motor America announced that CEO John Krafcik was leaving the company.

By Doron Levin

John Krafcik

John Krafcik

FORTUNE -- One of the hottest properties in the market for C-Suite automotive executives suddenly became available Friday when Hyundai Motor America announced that John Krafcik was leaving the company, to be replaced by David Zuchowski, who had been head of sales for the automaker.

Krafcik, 52, had been CEO of the South Korean automaker's U.S. subsidiary for five years, presiding over a period of growing market share, prestige, and consumer regard for the brand. His specialty had been product development, first at Ford (F) and then for Hyundai. And he is regarded by peers as one of the brighter, more talented executives in the industry.

Krafcik's exit coincides with the end of his five-year employment contract as CEO, the company's prepared statement said. The automaker didn't disclose why the contract wasn't renewed. Hyundai and its affiliate, Kia, had gained a reputation for summarily firing top U.S. executives, often for reasons that remained obscure, though Krafcik's tenure had seemed to suggest that trend was over.

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Although the circumstances behind Krafcik's departure remain mysterious, he could wind up soon in another prominent top job in the industry given his accomplishments, background, and the fast-changing nature of the typical executive suite at automakers. Ford's executive succession has been in limbo, pending resolution of whether its chief executive, Alan Mulally, leaves to run Microsoft (MSFT). Mary Barra, a General Motors (GM) executive, was named two weeks ago to become that company's next CEO.

Chrysler-Fiat chief Sergio Marchionne has hinted he will step down in 2015 or 2016.

"John Krafcik will show up somewhere," says Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Edmunds.com. "He will be a highly sought-after executive within the auto industry and in other industries. There had long been rumors of him returning to Ford for a top job to replace Allan Mulally, though the Ford executive succession plan seems now to be set."

A mechanical engineering graduate of Stanford University, Krafcik worked at the GM-Toyota (TM) joint venture in Fremont, Calif. and later on at the International Motor Vehicle Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before signing on at Ford.

At Hyundai, he helped lead a turnaround of an automaker that had been known for low-price, poorly designed and manufactured cars, turning the company into a top-tier competitor that grabbed customers from Nissan, Honda (HMC), and Toyota. During his tenure, the 2009 Genesis and 2012 Elantra were honored as North American Cars of the Year. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety identified several Hyundai models as "top picks."

But as a U.S. executive, his influence over key decisions made in South Korea was restricted. This year, his record was marred by a scandal in which Hyundai acknowledged that some of its statistics demonstrating superior fuel efficiency for its models were inaccurate.

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Zuchowski, a highly regarded sales executive who began his career at Ford, appears to have the credentials and experience to assume Krafcik's duties with little drama. How long Hyundai's senior executives in South Korea will allow Zuchowski to lead the company is a subject of conjecture once more.

Assuming Krafcik remains as enthusiastic about running an automaker as he appeared at a conference with journalists earlier this month in Ann Arbor, Mich., he could very well land a senior post soon at any of a half dozen or so companies. The steps leading to a job offer might already be unfolding soon inside boardrooms in Detroit, Japan, or on the European continent.

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