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How I Made It: John Krafcik

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Designing cars, Krafcik says, is 'what I felt I was put on the Earth to do'

The gig: John Krafcik is president of TrueCar, a car-buying website and app, which uses pricing data from other buyers to match consumers with a network of dealers. Krafcik, 52, previously was chief executive of Hyundai Motor America.

Jump start: Krafcik was a car guy from Day One. With a mechanically inclined dad — plus five older brothers and two older sisters — Krafcik was imprinted with the car gene "in a very major way" by the time he was 2, he said. One brother was in the Navy and returned home in a series of Corvettes, including a 1965 (with side pipes), a '68 and a '69.

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FOR THE RECORD:
TrueCar president: In the June 8 Business section, the first name of photographer Alex Krafcik was misspelled as Alec in the credit for a photograph with an article about TrueCar President John Krafcik. —

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First car: Despite the influence of his brother's Corvettes, Krafcik opted for a 1973 Ford Capri coupe. He bought it used with 75,000 miles on it and drove it from his hometown of Southington, Conn., to Stanford University. While in school, he piled on another 70,000 miles before selling it for more than he paid for it, Krafcik said.

Book learning: Krafcik studied mechanical engineering at Stanford, where he says he took every auto-related class the school offered. "I desperately wanted to go to work in the [car] industry to design cars," Krafcik said. "That's what I felt I was put on the Earth to do." He graduated in 1983, and despite a job offer from General Motors in Michigan, Krafcik was still smitten with California's weather.

A lucky turn: With "incredible serendipity," he worked for a year at a Xerox dot matrix plant in Fremont, Calif. Then GM and Toyota announced they were opening the New United Motor Manufacturing plant in the same town, and Krafcik was hired as the plant's first engineer. He worked under Yoshimitsu Ogihara, "a mysterious Yoda-like mentor" who Krafcik says was "absolutely foundational" in his career and approach to manufacturing. The venture sought to bring Toyota's innovative lean manufacturing process to the often wasteful and redundant GM process. "It was awesome that I was there at the start of this awakening of Western industry to how to build great things in massive quantities," Krafcik said.

Keep on truckin': Krafcik's next stop was MIT's Sloan School of Management for an MBA, where he studied under James Womack, coauthor of "The Machine That Changed the World," a seminal book on Toyota. After graduation, Krafcik landed a job at Ford, where he remained for 14 years. He started at an R&D team tasked with countering GM's Saturn brand, before moving to Ford's truck, SUV and van team. He was on this team in the heyday of Ford and Lincoln's profitability based on SUVs, and he loved the work, eventually landing as chief engineer.

Lane change: By 2003, he was looking for a brand for which he could work on the entire lineup and saw potential in what Hyundai was making. "It just felt like a magical moment where I thought, 'I can really help these guys take it to the next level,'" Krafcik said. He started as vice president for product development, and five years later he was running the company's North American operations as CEO, a seat he held until the end of 2013. In his decade with Hyundai, the company transformed from the butt of jokes to a serious contender in every segment it targeted, spurred by industry-leading moves such as a 100,000-mile warranty, electronic stability control as a standard feature, and eye-catching designs. But his time with the Korean automaker was tainted by Hyundai and corporate cousin Kia's admission in 2012 that they had inflated fuel economy ratings on about 900,000 vehicles. Krafcik wouldn't comment on the issue or on his contract not being renewed. But he remains on excellent terms with Hyundai, he said.

New roads: Krafcik said that throughout his career he's been a data geek. "Data will set you free," he quipped. This was one of the main draws to TrueCar.com for Krafcik, which he joined as president on April 30. The site, which sold stock to the public for the first time May 16, lets shoppers choose the exact model and trim level of vehicle they want and then see what other customers in their region have paid for the vehicle. They can search by closest dealer or lowest guaranteed sticker price. About 8,000 dealers subscribe to TrueCar (out of about 31,000 nationally), and each one within TrueCar's network guarantees that the price they show on TrueCar's site is what they'll sell that exact vehicle for. Only when the customer buys the car does the dealer pay TrueCar a flat fee for the referral. Not only does it give consumers a data-driven look at what they could and should pay for a car, but it gives dealers an inexpensive, focused way to reach customers, Krafcik said, cutting down on the huge expense of advertising and incentives.

Personal: Though he now works in Santa Monica, Krafcik makes the commute from Costa Mesa, where he lived during his Hyundai days. But he has some enviable machines to ease the driving woes: In the garage is a 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera S and a right-hand-drive Caterham Super 7, a lightweight, open-top two seater. "I need something more practical, but I'm all over the map right now," he said. Toyota's 4Runner has always been a favorite, and the upcoming Lexus RC Coupe has also caught his eye. Hyundai's all-new Genesis has a special place in his heart, but so too does BMW's new i8 plug-in hybrid. "That's a little over my pay grade, but I love everything about it," he said.

david.undercoffler@latimes.com

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VehiclesGeneral MotorsManufacturing and EngineeringStanford UniversityAutomotive EquipmentSouthingtonMassachusetts Institute of Technology
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