Activist investor Barington Capital Group LP ramped up pressure on Darden Restaurants Inc. Wednesday, urging the casual-dining company’s board to consider looking for a new chief executive.

Barington, along with activist investor Starboard Value L.P., has urged Darden to take more steps than the announced spinoff of the 706-unit Red Lobster chain and to allow shareholders to vote on Darden’s plans.

Barington said it has “lost confidence” in Clarence Otis Jr., Darden’s chief executive since November and 2004 and chairman since November 2005, citing what it called the company’s financial performance.

“While we are patient, long-term investors, we are deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating financial performance of Darden under the leadership of Mr. Otis,” wrote James A. Mitarotonda, Barington’s co-founder, chairman, president and chief executive.


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“In addition, we are dismayed by his efforts to separate Red Lobster and its valuable real estate from the company without shareholder approval, notwithstanding the fact that this controversial transaction could potentially diminish shareholder value and appears to us to be self-serving,” Mitarotonda continued.

Darden has stood by and moved forward with its plans, announced in December, to spin off or sell Red Lobster, to retain its real estate despite pressures to create a publicly traded real estate investment trust and turn around struggling sales trends at its Olive Garden chain.

“As we have said previously, our focus is on doing what is in the best interest of all Darden shareholders, and the board is confident in the actions the company is taking to deliver on this responsibility,” Rich Jeffers, Darden’s director of communications, said. “We have been speaking directly with our shareholders and look forward to continuing that dialogue.”

Barington’s Wednesday letter followed Starboard Value’s urgings in January for Darden to separate the chairman and CEO roles.

Barington represents shareholders who hold a more than 2 percent stake in Darden, and Starboard represents about 5.5 percent of Darden’s shares.

Earlier this month, Darden reported that Red Lobster and Olive Garden both showed same-store sales declines in the Feb. 23-ended third quarter. Same-store sales fell 8.8 percent at Red Lobster and 5.4 percent at 836-unit Olive Garden. They rose slightly, 0.3 percent, at 453-unit LongHorn Steakhouse.

The company reported an 18.4-percent decline in profit for the third quarter compared to the year-earlier period, blaming severe winter weather and costs associated with the Red Lobster separation. The company reported net income of $109.7 million, or 82 cents per share, falling from $134.4 million, or $1.02 a share, in the prior-year period. Revenue rose 1.1 percent, to $2.26 billion, from $2.23 billion in the prior-year period.

Darden ended the quarter with more than 2,100 restaurants, which include Darden’s Specialty Restaurant Group with the Bahama Breeze, Capital Grille, Eddie V’s, Seasons 52 and Yard House brands.

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless