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Gene Lee named interim CEO of Darden

In the first round of directives from Darden Restaurants’ new board of directors, COO and president Gene Lee was appointed interim CEO, triggering the immediate exit of Clarence Otis.

Jeff Smith was named non-executive chairman and head of the committee searching for a permanent new CEO. Smith is the CEO of Starboard Value, the investment firm that forced the change in control at Darden.

Starboard had also demanded the firing of Otis, the company’s CEO for several years. Otis resigned in July, but said he’d continue to serve the company until a permanent replacement was named.

Lee, who was appointed COO last year, was widely seen as Otis’ replacement before Starboard began its campaign to force significant strategic changes at Darden. He rose to the post through Rare Hospitality, the steak house operator that Darden acquired several years ago, bringing Capital Grille into its fold.

Starboard had promised dramatic changes at Darden, including the sale of the company’s emerging brands, an entry into franchising, and granular operational changes at Olive Garden, the company’s largest business.

It succeeded last week in a bitter proxy battle to sweep out Darden’s board and fill all 12 seats with allies.

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