Stan Gadek, the Sun Country Airlines chief executive who flew the carrier through bankruptcy and into profitability, left the company Wednesday in a stunning and publicly unforeseen development.
In a brief, late-afternoon statement, the board of MN Airlines, which does business as Sun Country Airlines, said Gadek was being replaced on an interim basis by vice president and general counsel John Fredericksen, a 10-year veteran of the Mendota Heights-based operation.
“The board wishes Mr. Gadek well, and appreciates the many good works he performed in his nearly five-year term as the leader of Sun Country Airlines,” the airline said in a statement.
Gadek is widely credited with keeping the airline afloat despite the recession and an extraordinary previous ownership situation involving convicted Wayzata businessman Tom Petters.
“This came as a complete surprise, totally out of the dark,” said Jake Yockers, spokesman for the Sun Country Air Line Pilots Association.
Attempts to reach Gadek were unsuccessful, as were attempts to reach board Chairman Marty Davis.
Dan Boivin, who as chairman of the Metropolitan Airports Commission met periodically with Gadek to go over Sun Country’s needs at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, said he and the commission staff were surprised by the news as well.
“He was a great leader for the company. We worked with him well,” Boivin said in an interview.
“I hope this is not a sign of major issues at the airline. We want to keep making them successful.”
In a statement that accompanied the Gadek announcement, Fredericksen said the transition between CEOs should be smooth.
“Our experienced management team, along with our dedicated Sun Country employees, will ensure that our customers continue to have the excellent airline experience they have come to expect from the hometown airline,” Fredericksen said.
Fredericksen gets good marks from those who have worked with him.
“He knows the business. He got them through bankruptcy,” said Boivin.
“It will be a very smooth transition,’’ said Wendy Williams Blackshaw, Sun Country’s former marketing vice president. “He knows the industry inside and out. John is a fair man. “He’s not a hard-charging-I’m-going-to-take-the-world-by-a-storm kind of guy.”
Gadek took over an already-struggling Sun Country, then owned by Tom Petters, in 2008, just months before Petters’ $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme collapsed and brought his business empire down with it.
The airline quickly sought the protection of bankruptcy court, employees took deep pay cuts and Petters bankruptcy trustee provided a line of credit to keep Sun Country in the air.
In 2007 and 2008, the airline lost a combined $50 million. But it returned to profitability in 2010 and has been profitable since, even in the face of high fuel prices. The bulk of Sun Country’s service is to leisure destinations, but it also operates a charter service for the military and college athletic teams.
In a November interview with the Star Tribune, Gadek said he was pleased with the ownership of the Davis family, best known for their Cambria quartz countertop business.
“They are very entrepreneurial, and that aligns well with who we are,’’ Gadek said in November. “They let management run the company and employees do their job.”
If there was any dissatisfaction on his part with Gadek’s leadership at that time, Davis didn’t show it.
“We’re still the hometown airline. It’s a fun business with good people,” Davis said.