Darden Restaurants Inc. on Monday said it is taking the interim tag off CEO Gene Lee’s title, giving the permanent job to the highly respected executive who had become the face of the company during one of its most tumultuous periods.
The position is effective immediately, and follows a national search that ultimately yielded the name many thought would get the job in the first place.
“After conducting a thorough search and reviewing numerous highly qualified candidates, it was clear that Gene was the best candidate and was the board’s unanimous choice,” Darden Chairman Jeffrey Smith said in a statement. “As chairman of the board, I have worked closely with Gene during his interim CEO role and have been incredibly impressed by his clear thinking, openness to new ideas, passion for winning and wonderful leadership style.”
“Gene has already done a terrific job improving the energy and attitude inside Darden and we expect the reinvigorated culture to continue to improve.”
Lee’s ascension to the top spot comes seven months after Darden’s longtime CEO, Clarence Otis, announced plans to retire, and five months after a group led by Smith won all 12 seats on Darden’s board of directors after a proxy battle. Lee, at the time Darden’s president and chief operating officer, had been named interim CEO shortly thereafter but was considered a top candidate for the permanent job.
“I fully appreciate the possibilities of an improved and reinvigorated Darden,” Lee said in a statement. “I am incredibly excited to continue to work with the board of directors and to execute our common vision for Darden. I believe Darden has a fantastic future and look forward to continuing to work with Darden’s talented employee base in our collective effort to return Darden to the pinnacle of full-service dining.”
Lee came to Darden in 2007 with the Orlando-based company’s purchase of Rare Hospitality International Inc., where he had spent the prior 10 years and was eventually named president. Darden has seven concepts, including its flagship, Olive Garden.
At Darden, he led the company’s high growth Specialty Restaurant Group for six years, including Eddie V’s, Yard House, Bahama Breeze, Seasons 52 and The Capital Grille. During his time there, that group grew from 60 to 175 restaurants and had annual earnings growth of 26 percent.
In 2013, Lee was given the People Report Workplace Legacy Award, which recognizes leaders who have demonstrated a commitment to balancing people and performance in the foodservice industry. Lee is a Massachusetts native who has an MBA from Suffolk University in Boston.
“Gene brings the perfect combination of restaurant-level operating experience, brand and corporate-level management expertise, and thoughtful, focused hands-on leadership,” Smith said.
The company said it now plans to search for a new CFO to replace Brad Richmond, who announced plans to retire in November.
Yet, with the search for a permanent CEO over, Darden is expected to turn its attention to addressing the company’s real estate — Smith’s hedge fund, Starboard Value, had called for a spinoff of that real estate during the proxy fight.
In December, Lee said that Darden is exploring options for its real estate and is evaluating other options for the company, including franchising and the company’s multi-concept portfolio. Darden has seven concepts, including its flagship, Olive Garden.
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