Gene Lee, Darden interim CEO

ORLANDO, Fla. — Two months after hiring a search firm to find a new chief executive officer, Darden Restaurants Inc. has found its man — at least temporarily. The restaurant chain said its board of directors has named Gene Lee as interim CEO. Lee, who previously was president and chief operating officer, succeeds Clarence Otis, who has stepped down as CEO, effective immediately. Otis previously had said he would step down no later than Dec. 31.

“The new board and I have appreciated the energy and attitude from within the organization,” said Jeffrey Smith, who has been appointed independent non-executive chairman of the board. “Gene has proven to be an outstanding leader at Darden, and we are excited to work closely with him as our interim chief executive officer. The board’s search committee will conduct a full search for the next CEO of Darden, which will include both internal and external candidates.”

Lee said he was “thrilled” with the opportunity provided by the board to lead Darden.

“Our teams are energized and looking with optimism at the opportunities ahead,” he said. “Everyone at Darden is focused on delivering an outstanding experience to every guest, every time, and with that level of commitment, our company will succeed.”

Darden also said its independent inspector of elections has certified the results of the company’s 2014 annual meeting. Accordingly, shareholders have elected all 12 Starboard-nominated directors to Darden’s board of directors. They are: Betsy Atkins, Margaret Shan Atkins, Jean Birch, Bradley Blum, Peter Feld, James Fogarty, Cynthia Jamison, William Lenehan, Lionel Nowell, III, Jeffrey Smith, Charles Sonsteby and Alan Stillman.

Darden also announced the appointment of the board’s committee chairs, effective immediately:

• Cynthia Jamison: Audit Committee
• Jeffrey Smith: CEO Search Committee
• James Fogarty: Compensation Committee
• William Lenehan: Finance and Real Estate Committee
• Betsy Atkins: Nominating and Governance Committee.