About five years after graduating from Stanford Law School, Wilfredo Hernandez got a call from Hyundai Motor America—it was one of his mentors from his first post-law school firm, calling to see if he’d like to apply for a role at Hyundai.
At the time, Hernandez was a senior counsel at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he spent a year and a half developing his skills as a civil litigator practicing securities litigation. “Hyundai was interested in whether or not I would like to come in and work on consumer litigation. I expressed a general interest and, after interviewing with them, I was very interested,” the deputy general counsel recalls.
Hernandez joined Hyundai on December 15, 2003—nearly nineteen years ago. Starting in a role as counsel, he climbed to roles such as senior counsel, director, then lead counsel of Genesis Motor America, and executive director of franchise law for the Hyundai enterprise in the United States—something he attributes to an exemplary work ethic and loyalty.
“The primary keys to advancement are—first and foremost—work ethic and industry, and second, loyalty to the brand and its vision. At Hyundai, the vision wasn’t just to grow for growth’s sake but to be better. We wanted to grow the brand, expand our footprint in the country, and showcase the quality of vehicles we could manufacture,” he says.
Looking back now as the deputy general counsel of the American region, Hernandez is particularly proud of his oversight in some of Hyundai’s most prominent brand and product launches, particularly the launch of Genesis, the company’s luxury division.
At the time, Hernandez’s team was in the process of developing but hadn’t fully evolved. “Back then, I was the sole operator, so I was at the forefront of the Genesis brand launch. It was a multiyear process that involved myriad legal and administrative challenges from dealers, regulators, and state officials across the country,” Hernandez says.
The success of the launch signified what an important role his office plays. “My group has grown since then because there’s been a recognition by the company of how vital what we do is to the development of the network,” the lawyer says.
Hyundai’s internal leaders weren’t the only ones to recognize Hernandez’s exemplary work. “Wilfredo’s leadership enables Hyundai and Genesis to meet the complex legal challenges of an evolving automotive industry,” says Richard H. Otera, managing partner at Nelson Mullins Riley. “We are privileged to work with Will and the Hyundai and Genesis legal team!”
Over time, the dealer franchise team expanded, and Hernandez intentionally set it up to operate as a triage unit, similar to how healthcare teams are organized in hospital emergency rooms.
“When a matter from the business comes to our office, or a new lawsuit against the company is filed, the first person at the door takes it to assess the extent of the threat and render a preliminary assessment. Then the team comes together to determine how best to handle the issue, and then assign the matter to a primary physician or two (if you will) to dispense the best legal advice possible,” he explains.
Hernandez also emphasizes the importance of staying attuned to the ever-changing elements of dealer automotive franchise law. “Not only do you have to be attuned to the ongoing changes but you also need the mental acuity and flexibility to process the change and recognize what it means for the company and its trajectory.”
As his team continues to grow, Hernandez looks for candidates with the same work ethic and loyalty that he credits with his own success. But he also looks for candidates with humility. “I encourage my team to take the initiative and make mistakes; that has been a constant for me,” he says. “My team will always receive my backing because that’s the only way we’re going to grow.”
Not only are his team members encouraged to make mistakes but they’re also motivated to balance life and work, even if Hernandez might not do so himself. “I 100 percent encourage my team to practice work/life balance, and I’ve never denied a vacation request in nineteen years of working here. Truth be told, I don’t regularly take vacations myself. My way of decompressing is watching European football on the weekends,” Hernandez says.
Just a few months into his new role as deputy general, Hernandez maintains his loyalty to the brand’s vision which, for Hyundai, is increasingly electric. The company recently launched the Ioniq model line. “The Ioniq model line is fully electric and will be expanding its portfolio of vehicles in the years to come,” Hernandez explains. “In addition, Genesis, the first brand I helped launch, is going fully electric in 2030.”
Hernandez has done much more than help the company launch models and a new brand. He has spearheaded the market representation legal initiatives that have helped transform the brand’s network since the installation of new management in 2019. He has also been instrumental in facilitating Hyundai’s entrance into the electric market in the US.
The fate of Hyundai’s recent market representation moves, as well as the future of Hyundai’s electric vehicles, will determine, in part, what the enterprise does in the rest of the hemisphere.
“I hate the expression, the proverbial ‘building the airplane as it’s flying,’ but that’s what we’re going to do,” Hernandez says. “I’m excited to see where our brand will go in North and South America.”
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