Erwin Raphael is U.S. general manager for Hyundai’s luxury Genesis brand.
Genesis USA

Erwin Raphael, the new U.S. general manager for Hyundai’s luxury brand, Genesis, specializes in challenges, whether in manufacturing, sales, math—or handling lions.

“It’s a lot easier to train a lion than give life to a lamb,” Raphael says, quoting one of his many mentors.

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He’s talking about dealing with an employee he describes as being “on fire,” a person who just rushes off and begins making changes before thinking things through. But Raphael notes that in some companies, people are unclear about their responsibilities and nothing gets done. At Chrysler’s foundry plant in Indianapolis in 2001, he learned from African-American plant manager Bob Bowers to harness that level of energy in a way that moves things along.

“You’re much better off with someone on fire than someone who doesn’t want to do anything. So when I have someone like that, I focus on what I need, and let … the lion do what it needs to do,” Raphael explains, expounding on a lesson that he says he learned then and still uses today. “You’ve got to assign responsibility and accountability to everything—that is key. … Make sure there is a single person responsible for moving each needle … and that person needs to know they are responsible. Once you have that, people get things done.”

That philosophy defines the career of Raphael, a man who has gotten things done with organizations and companies ranging from Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency to Toyota Motor Manufacturing and Chrysler. Born on the Caribbean island of Dominica and raised on St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the 49-year-old is a focused, driven executive with a wide range of interests and talents. He plays piano and guitar, and the married father of two is an active member of Saddleback Church, a diverse house of worship in Orange County, Calif.

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“My personal faith is very important to me and my family. We are strong Christians,” Raphael says, “ but as such, we realize our job is to love people and look out for the best interests of people. Not one race or another race.”

Diversity has been a focus for Raphael going all the way back to his first job out of college at Ohio State University. Later, at Ohio’s EPA, he started out developing models used for forecasting pollution and what would happen with pollution in water.

“We had an ad hoc small group of African Americans. We just took care of each other,” Raphael remembers. “Whenever there was a new African American, we would put our arms around them to show them the ropes, and help them assimilate better.”

Raphael says he has had many mentors throughout his career, both black and white, including renowned Anaheim, Calif., businessman Francis Price and DaimlerChrysler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche. Their backing is one of the driving forces behind his deep involvement with diversity issues.

“I look at diversity as a part of me and who I am because I really see value,” Raphael explains. “Forget about whether the company sees the value of diversity. I look at it as giving something back. I’ve had so many mentors for mentors who helped me because of their passion for helping a young black kid—a kid they could see their son in.”

But he says companies should take note of how being more diverse can be a boon to their bottom line.

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“Whether at Toyota or Chrysler or Hyundai, that’s been important,” Raphael muses. “Forget about being politically correct. If you attack a challenge and everybody on the team has one perspective, you’ll be less successful than if you have people with different points of view.”

Raphael is a founding member of Hyundai’s diversity council, which is chaired by CEO Dave Zurchowski.

“When we selected people to serve, we made sure we had people that were very diverse, blacks, whites, Asians, Muslims, Christians and LGBT,” says Raphael. The company started employee resource groups for Hispanics, women, LGBT, veterans and blacks, which each have a sponsor on the larger council. Raphael says that the decision to use the term “black” instead of “African American” was deliberate.

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“Roughly speaking, 13 percent of black people aren’t African American; they are from Africa and the Caribbean,” he explains.

Raphael says that Hyundai has been doing a good job of increasing the number of people of color at the company, and a recent review showed that every year over the past six, it has improved its numbers both inside the company and with dealerships.

“We’re still underweighted with black people, on the Hispanic side and with women,” he says.

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But Hyundai’s 2016 Super Bowl ad, “First Date,” rated No. 1 by USA Today’s Ad Meter, featured a 100 percent black cast. Starring actor-comedian Kevin Hart, it tells the story of a father loaning his daughter’s date his Hyundai, then hilariously following them around on the date.

“We weren’t aiming that at the African-American community; we were aiming at America,” Raphael explains. “People rarely mention that anyone in the commercial was black. People either saw themselves as the daughter, or people connected with the dad. It was able to put the black family front and center.”

Raphael’s new job involves the strategic direction and management of Hyundai’s luxury brand, Genesis, in the U.S., including sales and marketing. The U.S. Army veteran will oversee the introduction of the new, large luxury sedan, the Genesis G90, this summer. He says the sedan will be very competitive with the Mercedes S-Class and the BMW 7 Series. The company is also launching a Genesis G80, which will be in the same class as the BMW 5 Series and the Lexus GS.

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“The price will be very competitive in those segments,” Raphael says coyly. “We’re launching a new brand and going right at the heart of the establishment. We have to bring our A game with the product, how we handle the customer throughout the entire process … a luxury customer has certain expectations because they spent a lot on their cars.”

Sales will begin late this summer, and Raphael says he is feeling blessed.

“I love my job. I love cars,” Raphael says. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”