Features

Willy Hernandez – Hyundai Motor Group 

Helping drive the legal strategy for Hyundai  

Willy Hernandez admits that he didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer. In fact, he saw himself going to medical school and being a doctor like his father, who worked as a gynecologic oncologist for over 40 years in Los Angeles.  

However, a pivotal moment at Stanford University led him down the legal path. 

“Honestly, while working on my Ph.D. in history and international relations from a local research library, I saw students eating wine and cheese on the lawn, and it turned out they were law students,” Hernandez recalls. “It looked like they were enjoying themselves, and I was drawn to the potential of becoming a lawyer.” 

Little did he know that observing people drinking Pinot Noir and eating sharp cheddar with crackers would lead him to his current position—the Deputy General Counsel, Americas Strategic Region for the Hyundai Motor Group.  

Hernandez, who works out of the company’s Fountain Valley, California, North American headquarters, has seen his role expand from North America into Latin America and the Caribbean the past few years. He works on improving the company’s distribution partners outside the U.S. and ensuring its distributors – and, by extension – dealerships provide the best service to the Korean automakers’ millions of customers. 

“In the U.S., we’re constrained by the rules of domestic automotive franchise law,” Hernandez tells Vanguard during an interview from his home in March. “But, in Brazil, and other countries, we are trying to better the car buying process in ways we can’t domestically.” 

Improving the experience  

As a global automotive company, Hyundai faces many complex legal challenges that span different jurisdictions, regulatory frameworks, and contractual obligations. These challenges arise from various aspects of the company’s operations, including manufacturing, distribution, sales, after-sales and customer relations.  

One significant challenge for Hyundai is navigating the intricate web of the automotive regulatory framework. In the U.S., automotive manufacturers and distributors are bound by domestic automotive franchise laws, which often impose constraints on how vehicles are sold—one such statute stipulates that all consumers must consummate any deal within the premises of a licensed dealership. Companies like Tesla and Rivian skirt those laws by not having dealerships, but for Hyundai, Hernandez and others in the organization have worked to make the car-buying experience a little less onerous.  

“There is the stigma out there, and people have a pre-conceived notion of what they will go through when visiting a dealership,” Hernandez says. “But it doesn’t always have to be that way.” 

To address this, Hyundai has explored workarounds to provide consumers with an online shopping experience while still abiding by the laws. Hernandez helped the company partner with Amazon to present a platform for participating dealers to showcase their inventory. Customers can browse options, explore financing choices, and even select colors and trim levels for their desired vehicles. While the shopping occurs ahead of time, the final signing of documents still occurs at the dealership.  

The rubber meets the road 

Hyundai’s global presence also leads to complex legal issues related to distribution and franchising in different countries. Distributing products from manufacturing hubs like Korea to countries worldwide requires a deep understanding of local laws, regulations and business customs. Hernandez’s role has become more international in the past few years, and right now, he is focused on Hyundai’s operations in South America.  

In Brazil, specifically, Hyundai faces the unique situation of not having a comprehensive body of laws dictating what the company can and cannot do—like it deals with domestically. This lack of explicit legal guidelines presents opportunities and challenges. 

“While It offers us more flexibility in setting up operations and maintaining business continuity, it also requires Hyundai to navigate and negotiate business considerations autonomously,” Hernandez explains.  

In his role, Hernandez works closely with Hyundai’s global dealer network division teams to evaluate operations and modernize standards for distributors and dealers across Brazil and the rest of the Americas. His efforts are aimed at maximizing distribution efficiency, sales efficacy, market penetration in urban centers, as well as enhancing the overall customer experience.  

Hernandez says he takes a comprehensive approach to his work, analyzing various aspects of the company’s Central and South American (CSA)  operations, including advertising, imaging, geographic placement and operational consolidation. Hernandez says that the company can become more efficient by straightening and modernizing Hyundai’s dealerships and distribution network in the CSA zone. His principal focus is modernizing agreements with distributors and creating a template that may be distributed to other global markets. 

“As a team of one, I get excited about improving efficiency, whether for myself or our business,” he adds.  

Staying in his lane 

After graduating with a degree in history from UCLA, Hernandez, who was born in Framingham, Mass., and raised in Pasadena, Calif., moved to the Windy City to study History at the University of Chicago. He planned on getting a PhD but didn’t finish the program. 

“I got my master’s and decided to head back to California at Stanford to finish my doctorate. But the wine and cheese crowd changed my mind, so I pivoted to law,” Hernandez remembers. “I had a blank slate when I entered law school and had no idea what kind of lawyer I wanted to be.” 

Hernandez earned a JD from the Stanford University Law School and spent over five years in private practice at two major U.S. law firms. He joined Hyundai in December 2003 to work on its consumer litigation portfolio and says he never could have predicted where his career would be 23 years later.  

“Coming out of law school, my dream job would be something like what I’m doing now – working as an in-house litigation and transactional lawyer in a global setting,” Hernandez says.  

Working for a company based in Korea and focusing his efforts mostly on Brazil means interesting hours for the California-based Hernandez. He’s up early to be available to the Brazilian market (four hours ahead of California), and he can also connect with the home office in Korea as needed in the late afternoon/evening. 

“I speak Spanish, I can read and understand French, and I strive to learn Korean and Portuguese,” Hernandez says. “It is a global company; my role is international and will keep growing. I’ve got to stay sharp.” 

Published on: June 21, 2024

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