Clarence Otis Jr.
Clarence Otis Jr., Chairman and CEO of Darden Restaurants, was featured as a Goizueta Dean's Speaker on Oct. 27. PHOTO: Allison Shirreffs

In the not so distant past, corporate social responsibility was seen as “more of a ‘nice to have’ than a must have,” said Clarence Otis, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, Darden Restaurants, the world’s largest full-service restaurant company. As part of the Dean’s Leadership Speakers Series, Otis shared with students Oct. 27 the reasons a company’s community obligation has become a holistic, integrated part of doing business.

“It’s now seen as absolutely core,” he added.

This means tying the day-to-day strategy of the business to shared value.

“It’s critical to a company. It gives it a license to operate,” he told students. “It’s not just a nice thing to do, it’s a hard edge business decision.”

Darden’s brands are well known — Red Lobster, Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse, The Capital Grille, Bahama Breeze and Seasons 52. Annual sales of $7.5 billion garnered Darden a spot on the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest companies. Its portfolio includes 1900 restaurants in more than 100 cities in the U.S. and Canada, and the company has plans to expand to Mexico, Dubai, and Saudi Arabia as part of its five-year growth strategy to boost sales to between $11 to $12 billion.


As the company grows, it’s pledged to positively impact communities in which it operates.

Over the course of its fiscal year, Darden restaurants donated 50 million pounds of food to various food banks. Darden’s Recipe for Success™ program is designed to impact the educational prospects of underserved youth.

It’s a program that resonates with Otis.

Otis grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which is best known for riots that occurred there in 1965. Otis was 9 years old at the time. His father worked as a janitor while his mother stayed home to raise Otis and his three siblings. His parents worked hard to show their kids a life beyond Watts. A guidance counselor encouraged Otis to accept a college scholarship, which he did. He went on to earn his law degree at Stanford University, eventually launching a career in investment banking and finance (Otis was Darden’s CFO prior to becoming its CEO). His upbringing affects the way he leads.

“I see potential in all our employees at every level,” he said.

As a leader, Otis believes it’s important to be “visible and present,” and to listen and learn from front line employees.

“As you move into leadership positions, if you are quick to express your point of view, you never hear anyone else’s,” Otis told the Los Angeles Times last year. “There’s a lot to be said about the power of being quiet versus the power of being heard.”

– Allison Shirreffs