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Thomas Burkle’s career gamble

Design dream: Thomas Burkle could not resist the challenge of creating an entire image for an emerging brand.

Why a top designer left BMW to create the brand DNA for Hyundai

19 Oct 2011

THOMAS Burkle, the man who led the European design team that created the Hyundai i45 Tourer just released into Australia, had to make a career decision in 2005 that would involve him leaving a senior role as a BMW designer to take up a leading design role with the Korean car-maker.

Now, six years later, 50 year-old Mr Burkle leads an international team at the Hyundai Motor Europe Technical Centre in Russelsheim in Germany and is spearheading Hyundai management’s desire to take on the world’s volume luxury brands with superior design and quality.

But at the time the opportunity arose at Hyundai, the Korean company still had a lot to prove as a car-maker with wobbly styling and it was still struggling to come to grips with international quality, durability and vehicle dynamics standards.

And here he was at BMW with all the hallmarks of someone going places. His CV carried all the right brands.

While studying transport design at Pforzheim University Mr Burkle was indentured to the department of corporate and advanced design at Mercedes-Benz and became a contractor to Benz before moving to Brussels to work at the Toyota European Design Centre for seven years.

He spent a year in Spain developing his digital modelling skills at the Institute of Design and Photography and in 1999 spent a year with Volkswagen on a special auto multi-media project focussing on bringing IT inside the car.

He moved in 2000 to BMW as chief manager on lead design projects. He was responsible for the production design development of the 3-Series wagon and sedan, and the interior and exterior designs for the 6-Series cabriolet and coupe.

In March 2005 Hyundai was not the company it is today. It was an up-and-comer but with many kinks to sort out. So what was it about Hyundai that made Thomas Burkle confident enough to move from a German premium brand like BMW, renowned for design expertise?“Six years ago I asked the same questions myself,” he told GoAuto in an exclusive interview.

“I had a good position and was responsible for many projects. It was really very hard to leave BMW. But I had the imagination to think about Hyundai as an Asian power.

 center imageHyundai concepts from top: Genus, Arnejs, QarmaQ, i-mode, ix-onic, i-flow.

“Secondly, it was the challenge to become the chief designer of a brand which was rather unknown for design. I was therefore starting with a blank sheet of paper.

“This is a dream for a designer to build up a brand, whereas a brand like BMW has already established their direction. At BMW it is rather forecastable what the next model will look like, but working for Hyundai (presented) a real challenge.

“I could have the chance to build up the team. The team was much smaller at that time. But to build the team of people who were really hot on working on design and giving all their passion to it … also having this multicultural team from all over Europe.

“So we have designers from Italy. They are more about the cool proportions and the heritage of the cars. We have designers from France. They are very much more detail oriented. You have German designers. They are technology driven in their thinking somehow.

“This kind of melting pot of different aspects of car design was giving me a lot of inspiration and the power to develop cars.”

Mr Burkle said he therefore could not turn down the opportunity to create a design culture for Hyundai from the beginning rather than continue to work on at BMW where the design DNA was already well established and entrenched.

At Hyundai, Mr Burkle immediately set about creating concept vehicles using the Geneva and Paris motor shows starting in 2006 to showcase the work of the Russelsheim studio and to provide Hyundai’s designers with “a framework about where they were heading and to put their creativity on a path”.

He said the concept cars were built “because I had a vision, and the vision was that Hyundai has the energy and the power and strength to become a modern premium brand”.

Mr Burkle said he had discovered that Hyundai contained “a lot of passion and drive compared with other Asian car-makers when it comes to design” and that it has a “lot of energy to go forward”.

“Hyundai was one of the few companies to make big investments during the crisis (GFC) because they were believing in the way they were going and this empowered me to develop the design spirit in the company.

“But of course you have to convince the top management in Korea. You don’t just have the freedom to design what you want to do, you have to say why you want to do it and you have to take the initiative to build up the bridge between the different cultures.

“Fifty per cent of my role is to build up the communication bridge and to establish a unified thinking (within Hyundai).”

He said the i40 was an example of how this vision for Hyundai had evolved so far.

“When I see the i40 today it proves that this vision became a reality.

“I think this car is a breakthrough to (Hyundai) becoming a truly modern premium brand and if the car is successful it will show that the customers of Hyundai are willing to follow this next step.

“This is the amazing thing we discovered we can give modern premium cars to the world and people are willing to buy them. So there is a lot of potential in the brand development and in the image development of the brand.”

GoAuto asked Mr Burkle if car companies like Hyundai build higher quality, more technologically advanced and better-equipped cars at volume car prices, would it be possible that luxury car-makers like Mercedes and BMW could get consumed from below.

“This is a problem for BMW and Mercedes. Hyundai wants to become a high-quality player, not only in the world market but in specific markets like Europe (competing) eye-to-eye measured against the best like Volkswagen and Audi in terms of quality, in terms of design, in terms of fun to drive and in terms of environmental aspects.

“We have surpassed Toyota (in Europe) so we are the strongest import brand in Europe and Germany. But we don’t have the idea to conquer the world. In Europe and Germany there is a goal of just four per cent share this year, for example.

“The goal is to grow in quality. It is not the (primary goal) to grow in volume faster than Toyota and so on.

“The goal is to grow with lasting quality because that means you have better margins and that means that when there is a crisis, and ups and downs in the market, we are more stable.

“And it shows because in 2010 there was the crisis in Europe and the Hyundai market share and sales volume was still growing and was completely independent from the market going down.

“This shows that the sustainability of the thinking of the top management at Hyundai is very convincing.

“A company like Mercedes has to prove it is worth spending the money for the car. But the market analysis says that the brand loyalty of younger customers is not so strong. They are looking more at the product itself and this is where we want to be strong and where we want to offer a true alternative.”

So what price level can Hyundai reach above the i40 and i45? How much further up can the brand go with a more expensive car?“If you look at the American and the Asian market, the Equus is an S Class competitor – more so if you look at the size of the vehicle. There is also a stretched version in China. Then below you have the Genesis sedan compared with the LS Lexus.

“So you can see that globally Hyundai is playing in this luxury segment and learning all the time.”

Mr Burkle told GoAuto that his experience at Mercedes-Benz, Toyota and BMW meant he could bring different automotive industry perspectives to the table at Hyundai from what each brand had taught him.

“This is also the reason why I joined Hyundai because I wanted to combine my experience with other brands and then pick the best points of each culture and combine this (into) a very strong toolbox for working on future projects.

“So I learned at Mercedes that they are very concerned about brand identity and they take evolutionary steps to identify the car. They have to go in evolutionary steps for the front mask for example. The front mask is a strong icon.

“I said to Hyundai we have to develop our own front mask and that we (should not) change the front mask on every (new design) car because that creates confusion.

“This is very different from what they are used to in their own market because Hyundai has 60 per cent penetration and the people would get bored to see always the same front end on each car.

“But in other markets it is totally different. You have to show a statement and create this family resemblance. So this is what I learned at Mercedes.

“At Toyota I learned that they are thinking globally. Therefore I can judge very well where Hyundai is going in comparison. And they have a very strong sales channel, which makes the company powerful.

“So when we talked to Hyundai dealers, we said we have to strengthen the sales channel to create the aura in the dealerships of a design-oriented brand … and get famous architects to create this Hyundai world.

“BMW taught me the passion for the enthusiastic feeling of driving the car, the behaviour of the car and how the design is linked to the making of the car. That was for me very important.

“Also the cultural aspect in BMW. There was a saying in BMW, ‘You quarrel in the work time and in the evening you drink a beer together’.

“What this means is that sometimes you need to argue. You need to fight to get the best compromise. There is a saying, ‘If there is no fight, there is no good car in the end’.

“This is a cultural issue and this is something where the Asian culture and some European cultures have to learn. People should understand that it is not a personal attack when someone has a different opinion. It is a battle about the best product.”

Mr Burkle said Hyundai’s slogan – “New Thinking, New Possibilities” – is not just empty words.

“We follow this with intent and this gives us an advantage over the other more conservative car manufacturers.”

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