First Data Corp. executives say the company has no plans for an initial public offering — but its choice of a chief executive seems to say otherwise.

In introducing its new CEO, Joe Forehand, on Thursday, the Atlanta processor repeatedly stressed one key point on his resume: his leadership of Accenture PLC through its 2001 IPO.

Forehand led Accenture "through its IPO process, which still ranks as one of the largest IPOs ever," Michael Capellas, First Data's current chairman and CEO, said during a conference call.

Forehand would not discuss any concrete plans; "we don't have anything specifically in mind in terms of the time frame for an IPO," he said on the call.

Forehand, a First Data director, will take over as its chairman and interim CEO in April. He said he will serve as interim CEO until a permanent replacement is found, and will serve as chairman "for at least three years, at the board's pleasure."

But it's no secret that Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., the private-equity firm that bought First Data and took it private in 2007, has always seen a stock offering as its exit strategy, and analysts saw several clues in the announcement that suggest it will be sooner rather than later.

First, Capellas, who was named CEO the day KKR closed the purchase, is leaving that post but staying with the parent company as a senior adviser.

Gwenn Bezard, a research director at Aite Group LLC, said Capellas seems qualified to lead the company now, unless KKR is planning a major new initiative.

"Let's face it, companies need different CEOs for different situations, and the process of going through an IPO is very unique," he said. "If First Data is headed for an IPO, you definitely want to have someone who is very savvy at managing an IPO process."

This level of expertise may be particularly necessary for First Data, Bezard said.

"Given the situation of First Data — the company has a lot of debt — you have to do a very good job of selling the company to the market," he said.

Another clue was the "interim" attached to Forehand's new title, according to Aaron McPherson, a research manager for payments at the Framingham, Mass., research firm IDC Financial Insights.

"It's significant they would call" Forehand "interim, because you would suspect … extreme displeasure with Capellas' leadership" if his successor is not meant to be permanent. "That doesn't seem to be the case," he said.

An impending IPO is a more likely explanation. "Why would you have an interim CEO? It's got to be because you want to take the company public," he said.

Once the processor becomes a public company again it would probably have to hire a new CEO anyway, McPherson said. "If they take the company public, they're going to need a new board … at that point, that board will probably want to do an executive search," he said.

McPherson said that First Data may soon face an urgent need to raise the sort of funds that an IPO could generate. "They are under a really high debt load right now, and they need to pay it back."

Bezard said another theory for the management shake-up is that Forehand's experience at Accenture makes him uniquely qualified to help First Data compete against more mainstream technology companies; however, if that was the case, he said Forehand would have been put in the role for the long term.

The choice of Forehand was not the first hint that KKR might have an IPO in the works.

First Data reorganized its international operations in January, and observers speculated then that streamlining the organization was laying the groundwork for a stock offering.

And last year, First Data was listed among several KKR holdings that the private-equity firm considering for public offerings, according to an August report in the Financial Times. Another KKR property listed in that report, Dollar General Corp., was taken public in November.

First Data's revenue has been on an upswing since last year, after showing few gains in the first two years of Capellas' tenure.

It reported Thursday that its fourth-quarter revenue rose 12%, to $2.6 billion from a year earlier. Excluding funds attributable to noncontrolling interests, its net loss narrowed to $368.6 million in the quarter from a loss of $3.2 billion.

Capellas credited the improvement in the company's performance to new executive talent, expanded distribution channels, new technology and improved quality of service.

For the full year, First Data's revenue rose 6%, to $9.3 billion. The net loss attributable to First Data was $1.1 billion, contracting from a loss of $3.8 billion.

Forehand, 61, worked at Accenture for 34 years. He was its CEO from 1999 through 2004 and its chairman from 2001 through 2006. He currently is also a senior adviser at KKR.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.