Humongous video wall is a very impressive tool for show-and-tell at Hyundai Motor Groups university

Humongous video wall is a very impressive tool for show-and-tell at Hyundai Motor Group's university

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It is a long time since I darkened the door of any university, and then only for the odd social visit, so it was interesting to get a glimpse, courtesy of Kia, to Hyundai Motor Group's facility to see what overseas PR chief Michael Choo called the "more human side" of the automaker.

The rather austere buildings - some of South Korea's architecture reminds me of parts of East Berlin and the Czech Republic close to, and intended to impress, the west c. late 1980s - but it is certainly functional, technically impressive and well-used. The former semiconductor company training facility opened under the HMG banner in 2012 after $US120m was spent adapting it for purpose ("about three times what it would have cost if we started from scratch", noted an insider sotto voce).

Our small English group, first overseas media to be admitted, apparently, were told the Mabuk facility contains 287 rooms to accommodate trainees and shown a vast theatre-like complex. There are 36 classrooms including the auditorium, the forum hall, the seminar room and large, mid and small sized spaces. Also a 'chairman's apartment' (VIPs only), an excellent restaurant serving both Korean and western ('International') food and various recreational facilities including a gym and sports fields. The Mabuk campus is in Mabuk-dong, Yongin-si, about thirty minutes away from Seoul and you pass the twin towers of Hyundai and Kia's current head offices along the way, though a massive new structure is under construction on a different site.

Most impressive, though, was where we started - the so-called vision hall - home to the world's largest video wall, made up of 720 monitors making up a panel 24m wide and 3.4m high. While some of the video screened for us was a bit obscure, top quality vision technology and sound sure lived up to the claim we would "see and feel some of HMG's value and culture".

Most 'students' here are already well-seasoned, having joined the automaker from university, technical training or school, and had time to work in their own particular specialties, and the university is intended to give them a broader view of the company and a deeper glimpse into its history.

Of course, this is in-house pep talk stuff so some details of history flash up only briefly on the screen, without comment, like a shot full of Ford Cortinas, which Hyundai in very early days, used to assemble under licence, before moving on to (also licence-built) Mitsubishi powertrains. Rebadged Mazdas, from Kia's early days, also flash up, again without comment or commentary. But, boy, are they proud - and rightly so - of more recent history. "Fastest growing auto company". "We started late - we've been in business just 60 years" (compared to other automakers)". You do not make the comparison in Korean company but there are strong parallels with Japan and Germany - all three countries more or less flattened by mid 20th century wars; helped back up with assistance from outside; within a strong ambition to grow and stand on their own two feet; today, despite the odd hiccup, home to thriving automaking and associated industries.

Hyundai Group is big in autos, steel and construction. Hyundai Motor Group, with Kia, has 51 affiliates, and grown from 10th largest to fifth largest automaker in 15 years; 262,000 Hyundai employees, 50,000-plus at Kia, Kia alone with 33 plants in 10 countries, the facts keep coming at ya.

Kia

We're Kia's guest so, after mentioning the group vision, "together for a better future", Choo breaks out a bit of Kia history: started in 1944 as a bike maker; first Korean mass-produced bike 1951; the country's first motorcycle in 1961; first three-wheel truck in 1962; its first fully integrated production line in 1973; the first Brisi car (a rebadged, locally made Mazda 1000); first exports, a whole 10 units to Qatar, in 1975. Then the real start of growth in the late 1980s as Ford Festiva/Kia Pride/Mazda 121s in various specifications headed off to diverse markets.

The bad bit is, impressively, not glossed over. The 1998, post Asian region economic crash sent Kia "essentially bankrupt" and it was absorbed to form Hyundai Motor Group (in turn the "last standing truly Korean automaker".

Today, Kia alone has four domestic plants that churned out 1.6m cars in 2015, supplemented by overseas production of 1.96m with the US (Georgia) contributing 340,000; Slovakia 330,000, two plants in China (140,000; 450,000) and the new one in Mexico (400,000).

"One of the biggest challenges is currency movements of the US dollar versus the korean won," we were told, hence the spread of production across the globe to reduce the risk. Global capacity has risen from 1.4m in 2008 to 3.12m in 2016. "Much slower growth the last few years" is acknowledged but, nonetheless "we're expecting our 13th year of growth".

The Sportage is acknowledged as having put Kia on the map in Europe - it was an early build choice on the continent, ahead of the well-known c'eed, and design chief Peter Schreyer gets the credit for Kia's now-consistent corporate look and "many design awards". The "biggest milestone" is quality. "We were essentially bottom in 2006" but a recent top showing in JD Power awards in the US has put a spring in the marketing step along with some successful sports sponsorship activities such as the Australian Open tennis.

The future is promised as 98 new or refreshed products over the next five years and 14 eco-friendly vehicles by 2020. These will include PHEV Niro and Optima next year and production FCVs by 2020.

Interesting, being back at school.