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Travel Leaders: Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, Collette, President & CEO

When Collette first started operating tours back in 1918, women weren’t yet granted the right to vote in the USA. Penicillin hadn’t yet been discovered, and commercial jet travel was still a few decades away. And in this 106-year history, Collette has only had four CEOs. There is constancy here, but innovation has also carried the company through the pandemics and volcanic ash clouds, acts of god, and acts of humans. Karryon sits down with current CEO and President Jaclyn Leibl-Cote to chat about her journey to become the company’s first female CEO.

When Collette first started operating tours back in 1918, women weren’t yet granted the right to vote in the USA. Penicillin hadn’t yet been discovered, and commercial jet travel was still a few decades away. And in this 106-year history, Collette has only had four CEOs. There is constancy here, but innovation has also carried the company through the pandemics and volcanic ash clouds, acts of god, and acts of humans. Karryon sits down with current CEO and President Jaclyn Leibl-Cote to chat about her journey to become the company’s first female CEO.

Jaclyn is third-generation Collette. It’s like Dynasty, minus the drama and the southern drawls. Her grandfather, Dan Sullivan Snr, bought the company from Jack Collette, and then passed the reigns to his eldest son Dan Sullivan Jnr in 1990. But there was no guarantee that Jaclyn was next in line. Her journey, though shaped by her lineage is marked by a profound connection to the ethos of travel and exploration that Collette represents.

She didn’t inherit the role. She earned it and learned it. Though the learning started young. 

Playing at the office

“When you grow up in a family business, it’s always around in some way, shape or form,” she tells Karryon. 

“Back in the 80s and 90s, my dad was focusing on building the business internationally, so he spent a lot of time on the road.”

When he was home, Jaclyn remembers accompanying her father to the office, where the hum of typewriters and the whirl of photocopy machines became the soundtrack of her childhood Saturdays.

“My sister and I would make businesses using the machines,” she recalls.

“I have a lot of memories of being in the old Colette office. It’s part of who I was as a child. Did I understand the business? No. But I was around the people. The people knew me.”

The first international family trip she remembers was to Oberammergau for the Passion Play when she was 12.

“We did the whole guided tour experience with other travellers, and I got to meet some of our suppliers at the time.” 

Yes, she’s essentially describing a fam, but “it was great”, she says and I get the impression that it wasn’t just the travel, but very much the business side of it that appealed too. 

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It’s always been Collette

As one of the ‘Generation 3’ Collette kids, Jaclyn, the second of 17 cousins on her father’s side, couldn’t just jump into the company straight out of college. And so she gained critical insights working in tech, insights she now applies to drive Collette forward.

I ask if she ever felt lured away from Collette, but Jaclyn says simply, “I don’t know the actual answer to that. I’ve always enjoyed it. It’s always been close to my heart. It’s just something I always knew I wanted to do”.

But it hasn’t always been easy. 

“There are people who still will think you’re entitled when you step into a family business. And sometimes they just want to see you fail, and will make it really challenging. And so you just have to have enough tough skin to fight through that and at the end of the day, over time, collaborate, work and drive change.”

Her ascent to leadership was neither swift nor unchallenged. The blend of external work experience, hands-on roles within various departments at Collette, and executive coaching, sculpted Jaclyn into a leader who champions change with empathy, resilience, and strategic foresight. Her narrative is punctuated with moments of introspection and growth, learning not just to navigate but to thrive in the complexities of a family business.

And then she went and married someone who worked at Collette!

Christian Liebl-Cote is well-known in Australia as Executive Vice President, Global Business at Collette. But back in the day was a BDM in the New England area. Jaclyn and Christian knew each other as colleagues but not much more than that. 

“At the time, my brother’s best friend was the regional director. I had a girlfriend who worked in the company. And she was talking to Christian one night and said, ‘You should talk to Jacqueline’. And my best friend’s brother was talking to me. And he was like, ‘Oh, Christian’s such a great guy’. And so they tried to set us up and then the next Saturday, we went on a date and that was it.”

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“When his boss at the time found out that he had taken me on a date, he called him and he joked, ‘You better marry her’.

“We got engaged seven months later, and we’re going to be married 14 years in June.”

Legacy of a leader

As she stands at the helm of Collette, Jaclyn merges fresh innovation with the company’s storied past. She drives innovation while maintaining the core values that have been the bedrock of the company’s success. Her leadership is a testament to the balance between honouring tradition and embracing change, between being deeply personal and profoundly professional.

Jaclyn didn’t just inherit this legacy; she stepped into it with her own voice, vision, and experiences.

Her transition into her current role was not rushed. And Jaclyn learned from her father over many, many years.

“There have been a lot of words of wisdom and seeing how he does things and how he thinks about things. I bring a new perspective and different approaches. And he’s always respected those. I’m more strategy and data driven, whereas he built the business to what it is now and so he comes sometimes with more gut and historical knowledge. It’s a good balance.”

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Ashley, Jaclyn’s daughter wants her job when she gets older. And Jaclyn recalls her twin boys and her daughter “playing Colette” during lockdown.

Ashley played her mum, one of the boys played their dad and the other was the head of revenue management.

“They certainly don’t have come into the business,” says Jaclyn.

“But the world is opened up to them the way that it was opened up to me. And I’ve loved it all.”

Jaclyn’s narrative teaches powerful lessons in leadership, the worth of diligence, and the significance of family—both inherited and formed. Leading Collette, her story illuminates the path of leadership with grace, determination, and a forward-looking perspective.