Darden removes interim tag from Lee as CEO

by Eric Schroeder
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Gene Lee, CEO Darden Restaurants
Eugene Lee Jr.
ORLANDO — A four-month search for a new CEO was enough to convince the board of directors at Darden Restaurants, Inc. that the best man for the job was in house. The restaurant operator on Feb. 23 announced that Eugene Lee Jr., who had been interim CEO since October, has been named CEO, effective immediately.

“On behalf of the board, I want to say how excited we are to have Gene Lee as our CEO,” said Jeffrey Smith, independent non-executive chairman. “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. As chairman of the board, I have worked closely with Gene during his interim CEO role and have been incredibly impressed by his clear thinking, openness to new ideas, passion for winning, and wonderful leadership style. Gene has already done a terrific job improving the energy and attitude inside Darden, and we expect the reinvigorated culture to continue to improve. Gene brings the perfect combination of restaurant-level operating experience, brand- and corporate-level management expertise, and thoughtful, focused, hands-on leadership. The board and I look forward to working with Gene to write the next successful chapter for Darden.”

Lee, who previously served as president and COO at Darden, said he appreciates the possibilities “of an improved and reinvigorated Darden.”

“I am incredibly excited to continue to work with the board of directors and to execute our common vision for Darden,” Lee said. “I believe Darden has a fantastic future and look forward to continuing to work with Darden’s talented employee base in our collective effort to return Darden to the pinnacle of full service dining.”

Lee brings more than 30 years of restaurant operating experience to the role, which ranges from early stage high-growth concepts to large high volume chains. Prior to his appointment as interim CEO, Lee was president and COO of the company for one year, and prior to that he was president of the company’s Specialty Restaurant Group for six years. Lee joined Darden in 2007 as part of its acquisition of RARE Hospitality International, where he was president and COO. Lee had been with RARE since January 1997, serving initially as executive vice president of operations for its Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse concept. He became executive vice president of operations for RARE’s LongHorn Steakhouse division in October 1997 and was promoted to COO of RARE the following year. In 2001, he was named president of RARE and elected to its board of directors. Prior to RARE, Lee was senior vice president of operations for Uno Restaurant Corp. and in several management positions for York Steak House Systems.

He received a master’s degree in business administration from Suffolk Univ. in Boston.

Since a CEO now has been chosen, the company will turn to its search for the next CFO to succeed C. Bradford Richmond upon his retirement, which will include both external and internal candidates.
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