Darden Restaurants, the parent company of Olive Garden and six other casual-dining chains, has knocked the “interim” off Gene Lee’s title and made him the company’s full-fledged chief executive officer.
Lee had been serving as interim CEO since Clarence Otis surrendered the title last summer. He was president and COO prior for a year prior to Otis’ resignation, and was asked by the board to run the company until a permanent replacement could be found. During his interim tenure, the whole board was replaced by a slate of directors put forth by dissident shareholder Starboard Capital Partners, and the new team announced that finding a strong CEO would be a prime objective.
Lee rose to the top ranks at Darden through his leadership of Darden’s specialty restaurant group, which consists of the company’s younger, less developed brands, including Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze and Eddie V’s. During Lee’s six years as president of the group, it expanded to 175 restaurants, from 60.
He joined the company when it merged with Rare Hospitality, the parent of Capital Grille and Longhorn Steakhouse. Lee was president and COO at the time of the multi-billion-dollar deal.
Early in his career, he worked at York Steakhouse, a budget steak concept owned by what would become Darden. He spent a number of years at Pizzeria Uno before joining Rare through its Bugaboo Steakhouse operation, which was sold by Darden after the merger.
Lee’s appointment comes at a critical time for Darden. Starboard wooed shareholders to vote for a complete sweep of the board by promising to install industry veterans who could revive Olive Garden, Darden’s workhorse brand since the sale of Red Lobster. They previewed a series of changes that included how pasta is cooked at Olive Garden and how many free breadsticks the chain serves customers.
“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,” said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the board of Darden and CEO of Starboard Capital. “Gene has already done a terrific job improving the energy and attitude inside Darden and we expect the reinvigorated culture to continue to improve.”