NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Agility, innovation and evolution were necessary virtues for tire makers when Soo Il Lee joined Hankook Tire Co. in 1987, and so they continue to be as Lee returns to a familiar post as president of Hankook Tire America Corp.
The veteran leader at Hankook succeeds Hosung Suh, who served as president of the Americas segment since 2017. Lee previously served as president and CEO of the America's headquarters from 2009-12, and began his most recent tenure in mid-January.
"The automotive industry is always looking for revolution, and I believe that innovation is the key for a company to maintain its position in the top tier," Lee said Feb. 27. "Hankook will continue to evolve. In the U.S., specifically, our driving force is an ongoing competitive spirit and agility to meet the market's needs. We are focused on growing in-step with the market."
When Lee joined the South Korean tire maker 33 years ago, the industry was experiencing a revolution, Lee said, not unlike the progress being seen today, driven by complex OEM demands and industry-wide shifts with the onset of electric and autonomous vehicles.
"At that time, everything was moving at such a fast pace and all industries were focused on growth and innovation," he said. "Whenever we face challenges, I always put the company first and focus on our long-term success. We always have room for improvement, and we work to find new ways to maximize efficiency. If something is not working, I look to our employees to discover new and innovative ways to solve problems—the simpler the better, with a positive approach."
As Lee takes the reins for Hankook's America headquarters once again, he said he will focus on competitiveness, innovation and results, "constantly asking ourselves 'why' and then making changes to continuously improve."
He said he will strive to foster industry-university partnerships, levy internal venture capital for research and development, and provide an efficient workspace, specifically at its lone U.S. tire factory in Clarksville, Tenn.
Hankook also maintains the America Technical Center in Green, Ohio, which develops tires specifically for the American market.
"Every employee, including myself, will exert our passion and drive to realign our internal capabilities, thus proving to our key stakeholders that we are the market leaders," Lee said.
The outgoing Suh said Lee brings a wealth of knowledge back to the America's segment. "He understands the value of customer service and our commitment to excellence," Suh said.
Future of innovation
Lee brings with him the mantra of "Future Innovated, Innovation Realized," a philosophy built to match the technological trends driving the tire industry, he said.
Currently, SUV, CUV and light truck tires are the fastest growing segments in the Americas, Lee said, and the industry is focusing on demand for larger-rim tires and ultra-high performance products.
"This will be possible because we are producing our tires in America at our Tennessee plant, which enables us to meet consumer needs faster and more efficiently," he said. "Overall, we are concentrating on telling our story in order to elevate the Hankook brand."
As OEM demands increase with a focus on sustainability, performance and supply chain management, Hankook will need to be agile in its research and development, Lee said.
And consumers have their own set of demands, such as all-weather tires and certain performance and cosmetic needs.
Whereas UHP tires previously were tied to high-performance sports cars, they have become much more common on sedans, crossover vehicles and SUVs, he said.
"The U.S. market has a wide variety of drivers with diverse needs, therefore it's important that we are able to offer the products that meet various consumer needs," Lee said. "Trends in the UHP segment reveal an increased demand for performance tires in a wide range of sizes and vehicle types."
Specifically, a demand for rim diameters in the 19- to 21-inch range has increased, as has development of Hankook's all-season segment, Lee noted.
And Lee said Hankook will look to gain market share with SUVs and light truck fitments, already having launched the Dynapro AT2 (RF11), which boasts all-around performance, and the Dynapro MT2 (RT05), a mud-terrain tire for on- and off-road travel.
As for the TBR segment, Lee said Hankook continues to gain market ground with its SmartCityAU04, an urban bus tire for stop-and-go traffic, and the AH32 wide-base tire for mixed service and waste hauling applications.
And the DL15 and DL12 Super Single tires support a growing long-haul segment for the tire maker, he said.
"Overall, the U.S. market is competitive," Lee said.
Tennessee plant solidifies region
Under President Suh's tenure in the Americas, Hankook opened its state-of-the-art, 1.5 million-sq.-ft. manufacturing plant in Clarksville in October 2017. The facility now operates at a full capacity of 5 million tires annually, Lee said, and incorporates a sustainable design and automated features throughout.
The plant, which produced its first tires in April 2017, is OEM-certified and allows Hankook to "position our products in front of and have discussions with vehicle makers to encourage them to buy our products," Lee said.
Along with OEM fitments, the Clarksville plant also makes replacement tires, including the Dynapro AT2 and the full Kinergy PT line.
"When I was in the American headquarters in 2012, we supplied 2 million tires to vehicle makers in North America," Lee said. "As of 2019, we supplied about 9 million tires to vehicle makers in North America, and over 30 million tires to 46 vehicle brands worldwide, including many domestic and premium vehicle brands."
In terms of sales, Hankook currently ranks as the No. 6 tire maker in North America, with annual sales of about $1.7 billion.
Lee said the Clarksville plant incorporates a ventilation system that maintains a clean environment, as well as automated equipment that improves production quality.
In the passenger car and light truck market, Lee said there is a high demand for rugged, high-performance tires, such as the Dynapro MT2 and AT2, and in the third quarter of 2020 Hankook will launch a new UHP summer and all-weather tires. All of these tire types may be imported and warehoused at the Clarksville facility.
"Having a plant in the U.S. with a sturdy distribution network makes it possible for us to meet market demands," Lee said.
In the TBR market, Hankook will look to increase its share with an OEM contract to fit the 2020 Ford Super Duty Chassis Cab with its SmartFLex DH35 tires, Lee said.
And at the global level, Hankook is collaborating with Amazon in artificial intelligence for "optimal compound development," Lee said.
"We are continuing various design innovation projects along with partnerships with different distribution networks in order to meet consumer demands in the U.S. market," he said. "Having a plant in the U.S. enables us to provide a full line of products to meet the demands of our stakeholders. This also allows us to pay attention to new and different market trends so we can support those sectors as well."
Past successes, future challenges
Lee made his mark immediately with Hankook's global expansion plans when he joined Hankook in 1987, taking positions in Saudi Arabia, France, the U.S. and China over a 15-year period.
"I was there when Hankook established its first America Technical Center (in Green) in 1992, and we have carefully and intentionally put in place our global expansion strategy," Lee said.
Hankook saw its share of financial crises during Lee's time with the company, such as the International Monetary Fund bailout in 1997 and, as Lee terms it, the "short-term liquidity crisis" in 2008.
"Even then, we found ways to pull through and survived, bringing the company up to another level," he said.
And just as Hankook looked to the future during those challenges, putting in place such forward-thinking sustainability processes as "Kontrol Technologies," the company is turning to Lee to once again lead the company during a time of rapid change.
Lee said Hankook is well-positioned to make moves in the EV market, launching the Kinergy AS EV in 2018. In addition, the company is working on smart tire technology for the AV industry, such as intelligent tires that incorporate sensors.
"It is important that EV tires handle extra weight and make less noise, so we have developed a tire with a specific tread pattern and block arrangement to the benefit of electric platforms," Lee said. "We are also working closely with vehicle makers, and a considerable number of their electric vehicles already are on the road with our products."
A separate, uncontrollable challenge also faces Lee moving forward, as the coronavirus raises fears on the North American continent.
"Our major priority, as it relates to the coronavirus, is to keep Hankook Tire employees safe—and we are following the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control," Lee said. "We expect no issue in obtaining raw materials and supplying tires for different stakeholders."
He said Hankook will continue to monitor the situation at its Tennessee plant and worldwide, and the company's South Korean headquarters is encouraging its employees not to travel from South Korea for business.
Lee reiterated that he is "personally invested" in the success of the company, and believes in accountability for all employees and in facing issues collectively.
"And now we are well-positioned to move forward," Lee said.