With an impressive portfolio of brands including Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, Yard House, The Capital Grille, Seasons 52, Bahama Breeze, and Eddie V’s, Darden Restaurants is a company that holds an immense presence in the foodservice scene. So when news of a Chief transition was taking place for the company, we were all ears. Eugene (Gene) I. Lee, Jr., the current Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, has announced his retirement as CEO effective May 29, 2022. In his stead, Ricardo (Rick) Cardenas will be stepping up as the new CEO.
“It is an honor to be appointed Darden’s next Chief Executive Officer, and I am grateful to Gene and the Board for their confidence in me,” commented Cardenas. “It is humbling to lead 170,000 outstanding team members who nourish and delight everyone we serve. I was incredibly fortunate to work with each of Darden’s previous CEOs, so I have a strong appreciation for the legacy of leadership I am inheriting. By upholding our commitment to operational excellence and maximizing the power of the Darden platform, we will continue to execute our strategy to drive growth and shareholder value.”
According to the release, Cardenas was elected unanimously by the Board. The current President and Chief Operating Officer will also become a member of the Board effective May 30, 2022, when he assumes his new CEO role.
Cardenas was named President and Chief Operating Officer in January 2021. Previously, he served as Darden’s Chief Financial Officer since March 2016. Prior to that, he served as Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer. Cardenas began his career with Darden as an hourly team member in 1984 before joining the restaurant support center team in 1992. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in finance and accounting. He also earned an MBA from The Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth College.
“The Board and I are delighted that Rick will serve as Darden’s next CEO,” Lee said. “He has deep knowledge of our company and the industry and has been a valued strategic thought partner to me and the senior management team. I am confident that he has the integrity, vision, and leadership skills necessary to ensure Darden and its brands continue to successfully grow and be of service to our team members, our guests, and our shareholders.”
Lee will continue to serve on Darden’s Board of Directors as Executive Chairman until the 2022 Annual Meeting of Shareholders. At that time, Lee is expected to stand for re-election to the Board and continue to serve as Chairman in a non-executive capacity.
“It has been a privilege to serve as Darden’s CEO for the past seven years and to work with the most dedicated and talented team members and management team in the industry,” said Lee. “As Chairman, I look forward to collaborating with Rick and our Board to help Darden achieve even higher levels of success.”
Charles (Chuck) M. Sonsteby, Darden’s Lead Independent Director, also voiced his agreement on the transition as well as his appreciation to Lee for his dedicated service.
“On behalf of the entire Darden board, I want to thank Gene for his strong leadership as CEO. During Gene’s tenure, Darden’s revenues increased by more than $2 billion and market capitalization increased approximately three-fold to nearly $20 billion. At the same time, total shareholder returns were 1.5x the S&P 500 Index,” Sonsteby shared. “Gene has successfully led the company through significant change and unpredictability—most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic—with an unwavering focus on our guests and our team members. We look forward to continuing to work with Gene as Chairman of the Board.”
We wish the best of luck to Eugene Lee, Jr. and Ricardo Cardenas as they start their next journey.