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Inc.

Christopher Soder - CEO

CEO, Priceline.com North America 

Christopher Soder made the decision years ago to leave a regional sales VP job with AT&T and look for work with a dot-com. It was a burgeoning field, lots of people were making lots of money, and he wanted to be a part of it. He offered one prospective employer the name of a friend and former colleague as a reference, and got a call the next day. Not from the employer, but from the reference. “Don’t go to work for them,” his friend said. “That’s a stupid company. Come work at Priceline.” That was 13 years ago. Today, Soder runs the place.

The Priceline Group includes five companies: Priceline.com, Booking.com, Pagoda.com, Rentalcars. com, and, as of last month, Kayak.com. Priceline is the one with the William Shatner commercials and the name-your-own-price bidding, and Soder is CEO. It’s the only one of the five that’s focused on discounts, and the only one that offers full service travel booking—airfare, hotels, rental cars and package deals.

Priceline racked up $5 billion in gross bookings last year, but Soder says in the online travel biz, irrelevance is one misstep away. Mobile apps, he says, are driving a new revolution in online travel booking. Technological advances are happening at breakneck speed, and those advances require online businesses to keep up or fall hopelessly behind. “You have to understand the differences in presentation on these screen formats and the different things they enable,” he says, “or someone else will.”

Over lunch in a no-frills conference room at Priceline’s Norwalk headquarters, Soder outlined the challenge. First, you have to make sure your websites’ functions work on the different smartphone and tablet operating systems. Once your “stretchers” and “sliders” and other functions work, it’s critical to optimize, by deciding how much information and how many options should be displayed on a page. It’s painstaking work, which Soder says requires all of his nearly 400 employees to engage and take ownership. “I want people coming in every single day, hanging up their coat, sitting down and improving our website.”

To facilitate that kind of engagement, Soder has launched a new initiative he calls Priceline 2.0—an effort to speed up innovation. Until now, Priceline’s offices were just like thousands of others across the country: A perimeter of offices surrounding a sea of cubicles. “P2” involves tearing out the office walls, knocking down the cubicles and grouping teams at tables so they can brainstorm face to face. No more holding meetings to schedule other meetings. Teams take ownership of different sections of the website, and innovate as rapidly as technology demands, without waiting for the boss to float an idea. “Things are moving way too fast for me to set everyone’s goals at the beginning of the year,” Soder says.

Soder hails originally from Tulsa, Okla. He points proudly to an autographed photo of running back Adrian Peterson—in a Sooners uni— on the wall above his desk. He met his wife at OU, and the two of them travel back home once a year to visit family. His AT&T job took him to swanky San Francisco and sunny L.A., but he says, “Of all the places we’ve lived, by a mile, we like Connecticut the best.” Soder’s kids are grown and launching their own careers in the Boston area. He and his wife live in New Canaan. Until a little more than a year ago, though, they called Newtown home, and he says the tragedy last December hit hard. “It’s such a beautiful little community, and we have such affection for it, and to see those folks go through that was really hard.”

Soder is wearing an open-collared shirt and eating a takeout salad. He says he usually gets lunch at the cafeteria in his building. Not because the food is so good, but because it’s fast. You get the feeling he indulges in very few “three martini lunches.” Soder is an approachable and affable man, but he’s focused on the job at hand. It’s an attribute that no doubt helped make him a VP at AT&T in his 30s, and CEO of a major online company now. Priceline’s offices are pleasant but not luxurious, and the remodeling is designed to remove barriers to communication, not fancy them up. Value is placed on work here, not titles or the privileges that go with them, and Soder says effective leaders lead by example. So, yes, in case you were wondering, his office walls are coming down, too.

Brent Hardin is an anchor for Fox CT. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/brenthardin or follow him on Twitter @brenthardinfoxct.

Christopher L. Soder

TITLE: Chief Executive Officer, Priceline.com North America

EDUCATION: B.A. from the University of Oklahoma.

CAREER: Soder was president of North American Travel from February 2007 to June 2011. Previously, he held positions as executive vice president of Travel Services and Lodging and Vacation Products, and president of Priceline.com’s hotel service. Before joining Priceline.com, Soder was Western Region Vice President, Business Markets, for AT&T. He was named CEO of Priceline’s North American operations in 2011.

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