10 Things You Didn’t Know about Darden Restaurants CEO Eugene Lee Jr.

Darden Restaurants CEO Eugene Lee Jr.

Eugene Lee Jr. is the CEO of Darden Restaurants. For those who haven’t heard of it, Darden Restaurants is a U.S.-based restaurant operator that owns multiple brands with the result that the number of its restaurants are in the four digits. Here are 10 things you don’t know about this wildly successful CEO.

1. Has Experience in Marketing

Lee is said to have considerable experience in a number of fields other than operations, according to Bloomberg. For instance, he is said to be a skilled marketer, which tends to be an important skill for executives but is particularly so for someone running Darden Restaurants. After all, much of the restaurant operator’s success comes from the public’s positive impressions of its brands, which couldn’t have been created and can’t be maintained without a constant investment of marketing expertise, experience, and other resources.

2. Has Experience in Real Estate

Besides marketing, Lee is said to have considerable experience with real estate as well. Like marketing, it shouldn’t be too challenging to figure out why this should be considered an asset when it comes to running Darden Restaurants. In short, location matters a lot for a particular restaurant’s viability, meaning that real estate knowledge can be very useful for choosing the right places to open up new restaurants as well as a host of other matters.

3. Has Experience in Change Management

Speaking of which, Lee has change management experience. For those who are curious, change management refers to various approaches that can be used to help interested individuals, teams, and organizations make organizational changes, which is important because businesses are under constant pressure from numerous sources to keep up with the ever-evolving state of the business environment. Unfortunately, change is inherently disruptive, which is why change management is so useful for minimizing the potential impact of said disruption.

4. Came to Darden Restaurants Via RARE Hospitality International

Lee came to Darden Restaurants via RARE Hospitality International, which was bought out by the former in October of 2007. Before that, Lee had risen to the positions of President as well as Chief Operating Officer over the course of about a decade. As a result, when the buyout happened, Lee was well-prepared to take new responsibilities of importance.

5. Oversaw Specialty Restaurant Group

Eventually, Lee would reach the same positions at Darden Restaurants before being promoted to the position of its new CEO. However, before that would happen, he spent a total of six years as the President responsible for running Darden Restaurants’s Specialty Restaurant Group. There, Lee expanded its portfolio from 60 to 175 restaurants, which meant a 17 percent growth in sales as well as a 26 percent growth in earnings on an annualized basis.

6. Has Defied Expectations

So far, Lee has managed to produce very respectable numbers for Darden Restaurants. For instance, Olive Garden has prospered under his leadership, which is particularly remarkable because there are two major factors that are working against it. One, Olive Garden has an older customer base, which is big and expected to become bigger but comes with a serious issue in that it needs constant replacement. Two, Olive Garden specializes in pasta, which can be an issue when more and more restaurant-goers are choosing to be health-conscious by cutting back on carbs as well as gluten.

7. Success Based on “Back to Basics” Strategy

Apparently, Darden Restaurants’s success under Lee’s leadership can be credited to Lee’s “back to basics” strategy, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. In short, the idea is that Darden Restaurants can improve its growth by just offering excellent food as well as excellent service, which might sound simple in concept but tends to be much more complicated when it comes to execution. With that said, it is important to note that this “back to basics” strategy doesn’t mean that Darden Restaurants has remained static in other respects, as shown by how it has been putting more and more focus on its takeout business.

8. Wants to Turn Darden Restaurants Into a Plug and Play Platform

In more recent times, Lee has stated that he wants to turn Darden Restaurant into a plug and play platform, meaning that they can just “plug in” brands in order to give them an advantage, according to this article. This seems to be motivated to a considerable extent by the fact that Darden Restaurants sits in a mature industry, which as Lee said, means that they need to focus on cost-cutting via consolidating for boosting their financial performance.

9. Interested in Something with $750 Million to $1 Billion in Sales

Unsurprisingly, this means that Darden Restaurants under Lee’s leadership is still very much interested in brands that can be bought out before being plugged into its existing system. In particular, it should be mentioned that it seems to be looking for a brand that can generate between $750 million and $1 billion in sales on an annualized basis. However, it has also been said that Lee and the rest of Darden Restaurants’s leadership are willing to consider brands with sales as low as $300 million on an annualized basis provided that they like the rest of what they see.

10. Relatively Disciplined When It Comes to New Acquisitions

With that said, Lee and the rest of Darden Restaurants’s leadership seem to be relatively disciplined when it comes to new purchases. For instance, while they could expand their options a great deal more by considering something besides full-service restaurants, it seems that they are sticking with that as a necessary condition. Something that makes a great deal of sense because Darden Restaurants specializes in full-service restaurants, meaning that a careless purchase elsewhere could cause serious issues with the purchased brand that could extend elsewhere under the wrong circumstances.


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