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Darden Restaurants CEO Clarence Otis Jr. has a lot on his plate

The gig: Chairman and chief executive of Darden Restaurants Inc., which operates Olive Garden, Red Lobster and other sit-down casual-dining chains. Raised in Los Angeles, Otis, 54, has spent the last 15 years with the Orlando, Fla., concern and helped guide it through boom times and two recessions. He is one of the nation’s few African American CEOs who run a Fortune 500 company.

Family matters: Wife is Jacqueline Bradley, a former executive of corporate banking at SunTrust and now a stay-at-home mother. The couple have three children: Calvin, 21, and twins Allison and Randall, 18. Otis and his wife have one of the largest collections of African art in the U.S. They live in Orlando.

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Favorite dish: Venetian apricot chicken at Olive Garden

In the beginning: Born in Vicksburg, Miss., Otis moved with his family to Los Angeles when he was 4, later settling in Watts. His father was a janitor, and his mom stayed home to raise Otis and his three siblings. He was 9 when the 1965 Watts riots exploded. Living in the neighborhood, Otis said, taught him to persevere in difficult situations. “I always knew that I started with a huge advantage: I had two parents, a father who worked, and there was no drug or alcohol abuse in the family.”

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Family drive: His father, Clarence Otis Sr., never graduated from high school, but he inspired his children with Sunday afternoon drives past the ornate mansions of Beverly Hills. “He wanted us to see the possibilities,” the executive said.

Dishing out lessons: A guidance counselor pushed Otis to accept a scholarship at Williams College, a liberal arts school in Williamstown, Mass., where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science in 1977. He later earned his law degree at Stanford University and headed to the East Coast to work as a securities lawyer.

Success, he learned, had more to do with building a solid team with good chemistry and less with hiring individual superstars. In interviews, Otis started asking questions that focused on collaboration. “How much of the conversation is ‘we’ versus the use of ‘I’? Could they say who was the we? Did they only talk about their own accomplishments, or others and how they fit into the effort?” he explained.

Talk to me: Over time, Otis said, he found his leadership style evolving into one that’s centered around listening. “You have to allow room for other people to express their views. As you move into leadership positions, if you are quick to express your point of view, you never hear anyone else’s. There’s a lot to be said about the power of being quiet versus the power of being heard. I had a self-awareness of how I come across to others. That’s important. I didn’t want to come off as crowding other people out. I don’t think any good manager should.”

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Stepping into the kitchen: Otis joined Darden as treasurer in 1995, moved up to chief financial officer and, by 2004, stepped into the CEO role. His only previous restaurant experience had come in college when he waited tables on summer break. Still, it taught him an important lesson: In the dining world, you have to like people — and enjoy pleasing even the most difficult customers. “You can train someone to work in a kitchen. You can train someone on a wine list,” Otis said. “But if you don’t get charged up by being around people, then you have no business being in this business.”

Sour notes: The casual-dining industry has struggled in a tough economy. Early in the recession, many of Darden’s competitors slashed their staffs and wooed diners with deals. Customers balked when the freebies went away.

Times remain challenging. Although Darden reported Tuesday that its fiscal first-quarter profit rose nearly 20% compared with the same period a year earlier, its revenue growth of 4.2% was slightly below expectations amid sluggish sales at Red Lobster.

Otis says he focuses on short-term dining promotions, generally avoids deep discounting and fights to avoid cutting staff. “You do that, you’re not looking long-term,” he said. “You also break a bond of trust with your employees who stay.”

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com


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