updated 1/16/2004 8:33:39 AM ET 2004-01-16T13:33:39

Gordon M. Bethune, the colorful and blunt CEO who helped restore Continental Airlines Inc.'s financial health over the past decade, plans to retire this year, and four company board members are also leaving, according to published reports.

Bethune will leave the Houston-based airline at the end of the year, and be succeeded by president Larry Kellner on Jan. 1, the Houston Chronicle and The Wall Street Journal reported in Friday editions, citing sources familiar with the situation.

The newspapers reported that the airlines' board also would be reduced from 14 to 10 members with David Bonderman, Pat Foley, Richard Pogue and William Price all leaving.

Bethune's early departure comes amid a rancorous dispute with Bonderman over corporate issues and the financier's investments in rival carriers, the Journal reported.

Continental officials did not return calls from The Associated Press late Thursday and early Friday. The nation's fifth-largest airline planned to announce the news on Friday, according to the papers' sources.

Last year, Continental Airlines' employee-shareholder members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters called for Bonderman's resignation because of his financial investments in other airlines. He is founder and president of Texas Pacific Group, which has been known to gain ownership of struggling airlines and lead turnarounds. Price also is a principal of Texas Pacific Group.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Bonderman and Bethune have clashed over corporate issues almost since 1994, when Bonderman named Bethune to the post. Bethune has disagreed with Bonderman's involvement with America West and US Airways Group Inc.

Bethune, a former Boeing Co. executive, will celebrate a decade at Continental on Feb. 14 and is credited with steering Continental's turnaround after its second bankruptcy in 10 years.

Bethune went to work for Boeing in 1988, became a vice president and general manager of customer services and was vice president and general manager of the Boeing Commercial Airplane Group's Renton division before leaving for Continental.

He had been scheduled to retire in August 2006, when he turns 65.

Kellner, 44, joined Continental in June 1995 as chief financial officer. He was credited with restructuring the company's debt and aircraft leases that year, when many considered the company at risk of going out of business.

Bethune becomes the third major airline leader to announce his departure within the past year. Donald J. Carty, former CEO of Texas-based rival American, resigned in April amid employee furor over his compensation, and Leo F. Mullin stepped down from Atlanta-based Delta this month, partly to help the company secure pilot pay concessions.

Bethune is known throughout the industry for his candid, occasionally brusque speaking style and his willingness to express public opinions on rival carriers.

In his 1998 book about Continental's turnaround, "From Worst to First," Bethune said he "wanted every customer to feel valued in every transaction and every employee to feel valued every day.

"That makes the customers come back for more, and it makes the employees do better and better work," he wrote. "Tell them what you want, reward them for giving it to you and get out of the way. That's my strategy in a nutshell."

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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