How Keith Cline went from La Quinta's CFO to CEO

Keith Cline

LAS VEGAS — When former La Quinta President and CEO Wayne Goldberg stepped down last year, the company’s former EVP and CFO Keith Cline stepped into the role for an interim basis. By mid-February, the change was made permanent, and the new leader was introduced this week to a crowd of hotel owners and investors at the company’s annual conference, held at the Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. 

While Cline has been with La Quinta since January 2013, his background has been in the corporate world, including Express and Federal Express. La Quinta is his first hospitality company, but Cline believes that his experience in other types of businesses will serve the hotel brand well. “At the end of the day, what is the hospitality business?” he asked rhetorically during a break in the conference. “It's a connection between a consumer and a brand. You're eliciting some kind of emotion with that business. It’s no different than the fashion business—especially retail. The same rules apply.” Shoppers and hotel guests alike both want the right product at the right price, he explained, and want to feel a connection to the business, he said. 

Cline developed as a CFO in brands where the financial people “weren't really numbers people,” he said. “We were operators; we were marketers.” This outside-the-box mindset helped at La Quinta, where he worked alongside Raj Trivedi on the development side and with Julie Cary on franchising, focused on partnerships, marketing and customer analytics as well as number-crunching. “I wanted to get engaged in the areas that maybe, historically, the CFOs haven't been engaged in,” he said. 

Notably, as EVP and CFO, Cline helped guide La Quinta through its initial public offering, and 2015 2015 was the company’s first full fiscal year as a public company. “This is the second company that I've taken public,” he noted, referring to his taking Express Fashion public in 2010. “Really, the only thing that changes when you make that transition is you now have different governance standards and things that occupy your time.” Cline estimates that 40 percent of his job now is different from when the company was private. As both CFO and now CEO of a public company, he has to pay closer attention to the markets, the stocks,  the shareholders and the equity analysts. “For me, we were in that zone for 18 months,” he said. “Right now, I'm in the same zone, but sitting in a different chair.”

The last two years have each seen major changes for La Quinta—going public in 2014 and a major change in leadership in 2015. By the end of last year, a transition for the company’s call center, destructive storms in Texas and the prolonged depression in the production and pricing of oil all set the stage for a 2016 that may prove equally dramatic. But Cline is prepared for change. “We’re going to continue to see, industry-wide, a bit of a softening in occupancy,a little bit of a flattening in ADR—which the industry in general is experiencing,” he said. “It’s amazing how much things can change in 24 months. It's a rapidly changing industry and a rapidly changing consumer environment.” 

In his new role, Cline feels that his—and his team’s—main objective will be pursuing demand drivers in those markets that are less affected by the falling price of oil. “There are plenty of demand drivers,” he declared. “It might not be 100 percent occupancy and $250 a night, but it's going to be a strong performance that drives good cash flow in those markets.”