Southwest Airlines Co. is making changes in the front office that could offer clues as to who will eventually succeed Gary Kelly as CEO and chairman.
The company said Tuesday that it promoted Thomas Nealon, 55, to president, a title that Kelly had held. Nealon is a former Southwest chief information officer and board member who rejoined the company a year ago in a strategy job.
Nealon and Michael Van de Ven, also 55 and the airline’s chief operating officer, will both report to Kelly, who has led the Dallas-based airline for 12 years. Kelly described the arrangement as a three-headed office of the CEO.
Southwest does not have a mandatory retirement age for executives. Kelly, 61, said he plans to stay on for several more years. But, he added, “I’m not getting any younger” and said he didn’t want to leave the company unprepared to pick a successor.
While Kelly repeatedly invoked succession in announcing the changes, he said other executives could still emerge as potential leaders.
“We don’t have an heir apparent. This is not a desire to set up a horse race,” he said. “We are not appointing a CEO successor today.”
Nealon left an executive job at Southwest to join J.C. Penney Co., then spent several years at technology consultants The Feld Group Institute. Van de Ven has been at Southwest for 23 years with jobs in audit, finance and operations. Kelly said Tuesday’s changes would give him more responsibilities.
Southwest is the nation’s fourth-biggest airline although it carries more domestic passengers than anyone else. In trading before the executive changes were announced, the shares rose $1.04, or 2.1 percent, to close at $51.34. They gained 22 percent in the last 12 months.
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