Darden is headed by Clarence Otis Jr., a rare commodity in the nation’s c-suites: he is one of only five black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. The son of a janitor and a homemaker, Otis was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and grew up in the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles in the 60s. He attended Williams College, then graduated from Stanford Law School and after a series of Wall Street jobs, he was eventually recruited by Darden, and named treasurer. He climbed the corporate ladder and was named CEO in 2004, building a record of strong sales.
The company today is an undeniable success. In December, Baird analyst David Tarantino reportedly called Darden one of the best-run restaurant chains in the nation.
The company built a jewel of a corporate campus: a $152 million, 469,000-square-foot headquarters complex in Orlando. The three-story building was “cooked-to-order,” one reporter said, complete with employee amenities such as a banking center, a fitness center, dry-cleaning facilities, a cafeteria that prepares take-home meals, a gift shop, a coffee house, and a half-mile walking path.
“We’ve got roughly 1,400 people that work in this building, that support 1,800 restaurants across the country, so that’s fewer than one person per restaurant,” Jeffers said. “We’ve really brought the ability for a much more collaborative work environment across our six brands and all the people that are part of supporting our restaurants out in the field. It’s a much stronger collaboration because it’s all under one roof.”
Otis touts Darden’s success, tying it to his own experience, saying: “Given my own personal journey, I’ve had the opportunity to experience the broad socio-economic spectrum in this country. And I believe that experience has been beneficial in leading an organization that serves such [a] diverse guest base.”
While Otis appreciates black patronage, according to Jeffers, his perspective on the restaurant business isn’t limited to one demographic: “It’s not just about the African American community; it’s about all of our guests. That’s the way Mr. Otis looks at it.”