Poised to do an IPO, perhaps in 2014, Sabre Holdings, which owns Travelocity and one of the major global distribution systems, shuffled its top ranks, and brought in a new CEO.

Sam Gilliland, who’s been the CEO for a decade and took the company private in 2007, is out as CEO, and Tom Klein, who’s been Sabre president since 2010, replaces him as CEO effective immediately. Gilliland will keep his board chairman slot.

Gilliland had been slated to lead a “CEO Chat” yesterday morning, the first of a series, but it was abruptly cancelled about 30 minutes or so before it was to start. The word around Sabre is that this was coincidental.

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The changing of the guard at Sabre certainly was abrupt, with no transition period. Undoubtedly it had to do with the company’s performance, although only bondholders are privy to the financials of Sabre, one of the largest travel tech firms in the world.

The move could also relate to Sabre’s long desire to execute an IPO.

Gilliland previously ran Sabre subsidiary Travelocity, and the board has apparently aired divergent views on whether Travelocity, which has struggled for years, should be sold.

Sabre spokerson Nancy St. Pierre spun the change like this:

The transition in CEO leadership from Sam to Tom has been a carefully orchestrated succession process led by Sam. Sam has been a tremendous CEO, overseeing a period of company growth even in the face of a difficult global economy and a travel industry undergoing significant change. Sam helped engineer a vision for what will be a successful new era for Sabre as a global technology leader.

 

The announcement came with statements from Gilliland and Klein.

“It has been a privilege to lead Sabre’s outstanding team of more than 10,000 technology and business professionals over the past 10 years as CEO,” Gilliland said. “Together, we have diversified our business and made crucial investments to stay at the leading edge of technology for the travel industry.  Tom Klein has been my partner in that endeavor and I can think of no one better suited to take our company forward. He will benefit, as I have, from a talented and capable team that will help drive the company to even greater successes in the years to come.”

Klein has worked in the top ranks at Sabre for more than 20 years, and will keep his title as president, in addition to becoming CEO.

“I am honored by the trust being placed in me by the board, and I am excited by the opportunity that the global team at Sabre now faces as we write this company’s next chapter,” Klein said. “I am particularly grateful to Sam Gilliland, who has been an exceptional leader of our company for a decade.  Together with the entire senior leadership team, we are committed to carrying forward and accelerating our plans to evolve Sabre to meet the changing technology needs of our customers and the global travel industry.”

The next chapter begins now, and it remains to be seen whether it will be a public or private episode in terms of the public markets.

Here is the text of an email that new Sabre CEO and president Tom Klein sent today to customers, meaning travel agencies and corporations:

Dear Valued Customer:

I am writing today to inform you of an important transition at Sabre.

The company has announced today that I will be succeeding Sam Gilliland as CEO of Sabre, following his ten-year tenure in the role. I have attached a copy of the press release for your reference.

This transition is the result of a long, carefully orchestrated process, which Sam has led.

In the near-term, you should expect no changes in your relationship with Sabre. You all know me well. I have been at Sabre for years and have been privileged to serve shoulder-to-shoulder with Sam as company president since 2010. There will be no disruptions or distractions related to this transition.

And you should know that, just as Sam was always there for you, I am going to be available at any time to help deliver the solutions and service you expect of Sabre. The relationships we have with our customers are our most valued asset, and I intend to do what it takes to honor the trust you have put in us.

Going forward, you will see innovation from our company at an accelerating pace. We are working hard to develop the next generation of tools to help your companies thrive. Our measuring stick for success remains what it has always been: our ability to help our customers achieve their goals.

This is an exciting time for our industry. I am honored to follow in Sam’s footsteps and to lead a team of 10,000 extraordinary men and women around the world who make up the Sabre team. We look forward to continuing to serve you and your organization, as together we write the next chapter for the global travel and tourism industry.

Sincerely,

Tom Klein
CEO, President of Sabre Holdings