Ninan Chacko's abrupt exit as CEO of Travel Leaders Group elicited "wows" across the travel industry when people heard the news. The reasons behind his departure, and what new strategy controlling shareholder Certares Management has in mind is mere speculation for now.
Ninan Chacko, who helped execute controlling shareholder Certares Management’s rollup strategy for what became the largest U.S. leisure travel agency group, is out as CEO at Travel Leaders Group.
In a surprise announcement, Travel Leaders Group said that J.D. O’Hara, who has been president of the group for the past year, has been appointed CEO effective immediately, and will remain on the board. The company said Chacko, who was CEO for four years, resigned “to pursue other opportunities.”
Despite the announced reason for the resignation, one source close to the company told Skift “whatever went on, it was definitely sudden.” There had been no hint in recent weeks that a leadership change was in the offing, the source said.
J.D. O’Hara was a senior partner at Certares Management before taking on the presidency of Travel Leaders Group in 2018. His brother and longtime business partner Greg O’Hara is the founder and senior managing director of Certares Management, a private equity group. Michael Batt, Travel Leaders Group chairman, is a Certares advisor.
“Our focus will be on continuing to excel at what has made Travel Leaders Group great, providing impeccable service to our travelers, the highest quality support and tools to our travel advisors, and unsurpassed value to our preferred supplier partners,” J.D. O’Hara said in a statement.
Travel Leaders said that J.D. O’Hara, who has held a variety of operational roles at the company over the years, had as president been responsible for managing the company’s divisions, mergers and acquisitions, and strategic planning.
Under Chacko’s leadership since September 2015 through the end of 2018, Travel Leaders saw its gross sales climb some 65 percent to more than $7 billion, according to figures from Travel Weekly’s Power Lists. Along the way Travel Leaders Group acquired Barrhead Travel Group of Scotland, Your Event Solutions, CTS (Corporate Travel Services), Travel Management Partners, and merged with Altour, among other transactions.
During Chacko’s tenure, Travel Leaders Group transitioned from a predominantly corporate travel agency to one that is mostly leisure, 51 percent leisure versus 45 percent business, according to the Travel Weekly Power List.
One red flag during Chacko’s reign, is that former vice president Mai Meyaart in March 2018 filed a lawsuit alleging that Chacko and another executive unfairly denied her advancement within the company.
Travel Leaders Group and Meyaart settled the lawsuit five months later; the terms were not disclosed. The company is prohibited from commenting on the lawsuit and settlement because of a court-mandated gag order.
When it comes to mergers and acquisitions and synergies, Certares is the controlling shareholder of Travel Leaders Group, and the lead investor in American Express Global Business Travel. The latter just recapitalized, and is in the position to make additional corporate travel acquisitions.
Travel Leaders Group’s Barrhead Travel, based in the UK, has been busy over the last few months hiring former Thomas Cook staff, and announced plans to bring on some 100 additional storefronts, which would more than double its existing portfolio.
J.D. O’Hara said of the leadership change in a statement that he looks forward to a seamless transition.
Update: This story was updated to include mention of a wrongful termination lawsuit that was filed against Travel Leaders Group and Chacko in 2018.
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Photo credit: Ninan Chacko is the outgoing CEO of Travel Leaders Group. Travel Leaders Group