Jon Eliassen, the former Avista chief financial officer who left retirement to run Spokane’s Red Lion Hotels Corp., announced he’s stepping down as president and CEO effective Monday.
A company news release Thursday said Eliassen, who’s 66, will leave after three and a half years of helping the publicly traded company pull itself out of debt, in large part by converting some of its hotels into Red Lion franchises.
Eliassen said he will devote more time to other Spokane community interests.
He added that Red Lion is operating with the strongest balance sheet it’s had in several years.
“It’s perfect timing for me to leave,” he said. “The team we have in place now is made up of people with excellent backgrounds in hotel management, operation and franchising.”
Eliassen is considered one of the best-connected business leaders in the area. He spent 33 years working at Washington Water Power Co. and later Avista before retiring as chief financial officer in 2002.
He became executive director at the Spokane Regional Economic Development Council in 2003, remaining there until late 2007 when the EDC merged with Greater Spokane Incorporated.
In January 2010 he was asked by Red Lion’s board to take the hotel company’s CEO position on an interim basis. At the time Eliassen expected he’d hold the job for a year or two.
“Some of the things I wanted to accomplish took longer than expected,” he said.
In taking the Red Lion CEO job, Eliassen inherited a company with significant levels of debt and a number of expensive hotels it owned in markets where it struggled to compete for business and leisure travelers.
Eliassen said he focused on converting Red Lion from a hotel network that owned buildings into one that relies on franchising properties. Half of the 52 Red Lion hotels in 10 Western states and British Columbia are now franchises.
“We’ve added 12 franchises over the past 12 months,” Eliassen said, adding the corporate turnaround is evidenced by calls from other companies asking to be considered as Red Lion franchises. “That tells me we’re positioned very well to keep the company growing and moving forward,” he said.
Despite the progress, Red Lion’s financial position is still clouded. The company’s second-quarter earnings summary, released Thursday, said Red Lion lost $1.3 million on revenue of $36.3 million, compared with a loss of $2.9 million and revenue of $40.3 million in the second quarter of 2012.
Eliassen, who will remain on Red Lion’s board until Oct. 1, said he’s discussed leaving the company with the board for several months. His base salary is $323,000 per year.
James P. Evans, a Red Lion company director for the past two years, will be interim president and CEO. Red Lion’s board has hired a national recruitment firm to identify CEO candidates.
Eliassen said he’ll use his free time to work with two Spokane-area companies on whose boards he serves: Itron Inc. and IT-Lifeline.
Eliassen is chairman of Itron’s board of directors. Liberty Lake-based Itron is one of the world’s largest providers of utility products and services.