Hyundai’s head of high performance seeks a management makeover
Thomas Schemera left BMW for Hyundai’s N-brand, but has ambitions far greater than merely making fast cars
Thomas Schemera, head of high performance at Hyundai: “I wanted to go to Hyundai to build a very emotional brand from scratch.”
We live in a world where everyone and their dog wants to buy an SUV (in fact, maybe it’s because everyone has a dog that we all want an SUV, but that’s a musing for another day…) and we are accelerating headlong towards a future of wholly electric power for cars.
It is at this precise moment that Hyundai has decided to create its own high-performance brand, Hyundai N. It’s a brand which hasn’t built an SUV (yet) nor a hybrid or electric car (yet, and yet) but which so far has stuck to the tradition of building a family hatchback with an over-endowed engine stuffed in its snout (copyright, Volkswagen, 1976).
The result is the Hyundai i30N, and far from being a single model brand, N is already expanding, with a coupe-ish i30N Fastback on the way. A chance to drive a prototype of the Fastback is also a chance to chat with Thomas Schemera, who this year left his long-time home at BMW’s M-Sport division, to join his former colleague Albert Biermann at Hyundai. Schemera’s ambition, though, is about far more than merely making fast cars. He wants to make the whole corporate edifice of Hyundai as lean and as fast moving as his turbocharged N-cars.
“I just wanted to change a couple of things. I wanted to go to Hyundai to build a very emotional brand from scratch. It was not a very easy decision for me, because I like BMW a lot, and I spent my whole life there. But it was time to change,” Schemera told The Irish Times.
“I guess there is a lot of potential there, and my good old friend Dr Albert Biermann was already there, and we had met many years ago at BMW M. There I was running the business and he was running the research and development, and now we have the same setup at Hyundai N.
“It’s driven by a new spirit, of the new brand, driven by the new guys that have come into it. So we are talking about modular matrix, and modular toolkits, because this makes the brand more profitable, more flexible, faster. And that’s exactly what the brand needs. We are already in a very good way, but we can do a little bit more, and this will help. This new way of thinking, can help, and our vice chairman is very keen, and this is right, this is far-sighted thinking.
“So it’s both about attracting new customers, car enthusiasts who maybe wouldn’t have thought of Hyundai before, and also about changing the way the company works. It’s both things. So due to the fact that we have come in with our new spirit, but we are using the same parts and components as the base models, we are coming in and touching things, and discussing things, and this is associated with a lot of change and thinking ‘what can we do here? Can it be applied to something else over here?’
“Take for example the driving experience, driving activities, I’m convinced that it’s the key to our success, nothing is more compelling than driving, and this is what Hyundai has been lacking. We have to get close to the customers and work with them, it’s absolutely the best thing. And it will have an impact on all the other things in the company.”
Schemera only joined Hyundai in March of this year, but already the N-brand has been hugely successful, winning significant critical plaudits for the i30N, and, according to Schemera, attracting a new set of customers to a brand they would not have previously considered.
“It is very important for us in this hugely competitive segment to offer a car that’s very good on price. But the good thing is that it’s pulling in new customer groups, new enthusiast groups, into the dealerships, and it’s changing the whole impression of the Hyundai brand,” he told The Irish Times.
“Now, we have to keep up with that, at a dealer level, and a factory level, and there’s a lot of work, but it’s great. It was not that easy. In our company we have a lot of experienced guys, and they know what to do and how to do it. But I don’t think that everyone in the company thought it was the right way to go and the right move.
“Because from my point of view performance can encompass all market segments, it’s not just for lower segments or smaller segments. We’ve started with the i30, because that’s driven by market demand in the hatchback segment, and it’s very important and very successful, and there are high performance icons in this segment, such as the Golf GTI and the Ford Focus ST. So I thought this was the perfect car to start with. So I think it’s the case that we are monitoring the market as a whole and we are paying attention, and we will have other cars in the pipeline.”
Those “other cars” are not yet decided upon, although it’s thought that the next-generation of the hugely popular Tucson SUV may get the N-treatment (doubtless Biermann and Schemera will be closely monitoring how well close rival Skoda gets on with its RS-branded version of the Kodiaq SUV). One that is all but definite, though, will be a “halo model” – something completely different, an N-model that’s not based on an existing Hyundai.
“We need a halo car that showcases the technology and looks to the future, and shows off what we can do with N-Sport and N-Lines and everything else, and which makes the public aware of our competency, and our future vision. it will be a unique, standalone car. The new halo model has not been decided on, finally, yet, but we are very close to a decision on how it looks, and how the platform works, but my preference and Albert Biermann’s preference are set, so watch this space.”
Could Hyundai build a supercar? It’s possible (although it would probably have to be front-engined, rather than mid-engined, to be able to use an existing Hyundai-Kia-Genesis platform) and it’s also possible that it could feature some form of electric boost, something that Schemera hinted at during the interview.
But his mission is not about building cars. Schemera seems to be taking inspiration from Honda, which in the 1980s, would rotate engineers and management staff into and out of its hugely successful Formula One projects, trying to give them a taste of ultra-fast, high-pressure decision-making in a hugely competitive environment.
Hyundai has often been criticised in the past by financial and car market analysts for being too slow on its feet to react to new market trends. Schemera’s prescription for curing that seems to be the same as once Honda’s was: use the performance car and motorsports worlds to create a new mentality within the Korean giant.
“My ambition is to make the brand great. To establish a high-performance brand, we cannot do it overnight even though we know what we have to do. But still you have to do each piece one by one, and you cannot push it too far, too fast. We don’t want to hammer people, we want to convince them. It’s all about the product but also the people, so I want to get closer and keep contact with our customers, so events such as this, where we can get people behind the steering wheel, are very important. Nothing is more compelling than driving. And this is one thing that needs to be changed as a whole within the Hyundai brand, as well as for Kia and for Genesis.”