HOUSTON - Love him or hate him, Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune makes an indelible impression.
He's blunt. He's jovial with a sarcastic wit. He has no patience for euphemisms. And this week the man credited with resuscitating Continental from near death a decade ago will hang up his wings.
"I don't know what I'll be doing, but I won't be dead," Mr. Bethune said jokingly about retirement recently.
Mr. Bethune, 63, had originally planned to retire in August 2006, when he turns 65. But last January he announced that at year's end he would leave the airline in the hands of his longtime second-in-command, Larry Kellner, in tandem with Texas Pacific Group President David Bonderman's departure earlier this year from Continental's board.
Texas Pacific once held a controlling interest in Houston-based Continental and helped the No. 5 carrier emerge from its second bankruptcy in 1993. But the group's controlling interest in America West and reported interest in buying stakes in other rivals drew conflict-of-interest fire from Continental's labor unions.
"There is a time to go and this is as good as any, but not with that pimple in our shoe," Mr. Bethune said. "And so it was brokered in, I think, a civilized way ... Larry's got a good board. There's no cloud, there's no suspicion."
Throughout his career, Mr. Bethune has spoken for the industry, but Continental comes first. He'll pounce if he perceives a competitor has an unfair advantage.
"It is certainly true that because he is so outspoken, there probably aren't a lot of warm feelings for him in executive offices of many other airlines," said Daniel Kasper, who runs the transportation practice for the consulting firm LECG in Cambridge, Mass. "His job is not to win a popularity contest among his competitors. If he's trying to win popularity contest, it's with customers and maybe with Wall Street. And with the labor force too."