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Eliassen, epitome of "entrepreneurial encore," and 'last of a breed," leaves Red Lion Hotels

Jon E. Eliassen, who has epitomized the phrase "entrepreneurial encore" since his first "retirement" a decade ago, may actually be moving closer to real retirement, at the age of 66, as he steps down from the role of president and CEO of Red Lion Hotels Corp.

  

In one respect, his retirement from the helm of the Spokane-based hotel company ends a dual role that made him the last of a vanishing CEO breed, those who chair the board of one publicly traded company while serving as CEO of another.

Jon Eliassen
Jon Eliassen

 

Thus while Eliassen is leaving the top-executive post at Red Lion, which he has held since January, 2010, he will remain as chair of the board of Itron Inc., the $2.2 billion global energy-management and technology company based in Liberty Lake, east of Spokane.

  

Eliassen's retirement, announced last week, took effect Monday and he will leave the Red Lion board at the end of September.

 

His focus on a strategy of converting Red Lion from a hotel company that owned buildings into one that relied on franchising properties has been largely successful as half of the company's 52 hotels in 10 western states and British Columbia are now franchises and lesser owned hotels have been sold.

 

But the past year has been a difficult one for Eliassen and his board as efforts to find a suitor for the company proved unsuccessful and criticisms from two investor groups, who together own about 33 percent of the company created and long controlled by the Barbieri family, mounted. Donald Barbieri, CEO of Red Lion during its growth and expansion years before he turned over the reins in 2006 while remaining as board chair, retired from the board last December.

 

Four new board members were added last year, including James P. Evans, former head of Best Western International, who will serve as interim president and CEO while the board searches for a permanent new leader.

 

But if the role at Red Lion brought its likely frustrations, the board-chair post at Itron, which he helped birth as a start-up subsidiary of the old Washington Water Power Co., now Avista Corp., in the later half of the 1980s, has brought offsetting satisfactions.

 

In a column I did on Eliassen when he assumed his role at Red Lion, he made clear that he didn't want to be credited with being responsible for Itron's successful growth from its early days as a remote meter-reading business. Others, however, would say he clearly played a dramatic role in Itron's growth as the CFO at WWP-Avista for 16 years.

 

But he conceded he's had fun watching what he referred to as "a great run" for Itron into its role as a world leader in providing electricity, heat, water and gas metering devices.

 

Eliassen's first "retirement" came in 2003 when he departed his role as CFO and senior vice president at Avista, capping a 33-year career with the investor-owned utility. But he quickly­ was coaxed into taking over the Spokane Area Economic Development Council as its CEO.

 

He remained as CEO of the Spokane EDC until 2007 when he helped put together a merger of the EDC with the Spokane Chamber of Commerce to create Greater Spokane Inc.

 

That retirement lasted for a couple of years until 2010 when the Red Lion board, on which he had served since his retirement from Avista, picked him to be president and CEO at a time of transition and challenge for the hotel company.

 

When I asked him this week what lies ahead, he said "I'm not planning to do anything beyond being involved as a director or in an advisory role."

 

But the board work extends beyond Itron, since he is a board member of ITLifeline, a privately held business continuity anddisaster-recovery company down the road from Itron in Libetry Lake. And he is the principal of Terrapin Capital Group, LLC.

And while he says he remains "engaged with trends and the continued evolution of energy and water."

And because of what Spokane venture capitalist Tom Simpson has described as "an unselfish desire to fuel economic growth in Spokane," none would surprised if Eliassen were to find a future

summons too interesting to pass up.

 

As to the dual role in which he was the last of what I described as "a vanishing CEO breed," until a year ago he had shared that unique role with Bill Ayer, president and CEO of Alaska Air Group as well as being board chairman at Puget Sound Energy. But Ayer retired from Alaska in early 2012.

 

The reason he's likely the last of a breed is because of the growing aversion of boards to having their CEOs involved in a significant way with the business of another company, with those schooled in board activity noting that directors are increasingly saying, basically, "we want our CEO to be focused on our company."

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