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Olive Garden's parent names CEO Gene Lee chairman

Rick Cardenas will move up to president and COO of Darden Restaurants while Raj Vennam will become CFO.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants has named CEO Gene Lee to the additional post of chairman, effective Jan. 4, saying the move will streamline execution of the company’s strategic plan.

Under the realignment, Lee’s role as president will shift to Rick Cardenas, currently CFO. Cardenas will take on the additional role of COO.

He will be succeeded as CFO by Raj Vennam, currently SVP of finance and analytics and treasurer.

Lee’s predecessor as chairman, Chuck Sonsteby, will remain on the board as lead independent director.

"At a time of unprecedented change in our industry, the Board concluded that it is in the best interests of the company to combine the roles of chairman and CEO in order to drive the most efficient execution of its long-term strategy," Sonsteby said in a statement. "Gene is an extraordinary leader with a passion for our business and team members resulting from decades of restaurant operating experience and successful executive leadership. We believe this is the right time for him to assume this role."

Lee has served as CEO since 2015, after serving in that role on what was expected to be an interim basis.  The company’s prior CEO had resigned, and its entire board had been voted out as the result of pressure exerted by the dissident shareholder Starboard Value. Lee’s performance earned him an offer to assume the post on a permanent basis.

"The organizational changes announced today reflect our intention to provide Rick and Raj a diversity of experience while creating growth opportunities for them,” Lee said in a statement.

The management realignment was announced simultaneously with Darden’s release of financial results for the second quarter ended Nov. 29. Net earnings for the period were $96 million, nearly four times the year-ago profit of $24.7 million. Revenues totaled $1.66 billion, a decline of 19.4%.  Same-store sales for the quarter declined 19.9% for Olive Garden and 11.1% for LongHorn Steak House, the company’s two largest businesses.

Its other restaurant brands include The Capital Grille, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, Seasons 52 and Bahama Breeze.


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