CEO has a lot on plate

Los Angeles Times - - Business - P.J. Huff­s­tut­ter p.j.huff­s­tut­ter @latimes.com

The gig: Chair­man and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Dar­den Restau­rants Inc., which op­er­ates Olive Gar­den, Red Lob­ster and other sit-down ca­sual-din­ing chains. Raised in Los An­ge­les, Otis, 54, has spent the last 15 years with the Or­lando, Fla., con­cern and helped guide it through boom times and two re­ces­sions. He is one of the nation’s few African Amer­i­can CEOs who run a For­tune 500 com­pany.

Fam­ily mat­ters: His wife is Jac­que­line Bradley, a for­mer ex­ec­u­tive of cor­po­rate bank­ing at SunTrust and now a stay-at-home mother. The cou­ple have three chil­dren: Calvin, 21, and twins Al­li­son and Randall, 18. Otis and his wife have one of the largest col­lec­tions of African art in the U.S. They live in Or­lando.

Fa­vorite dish: Vene­tian apri­cot chicken at Olive Gar­den.

In the be­gin­ning: Born in Vicks­burg, Miss., Otis moved with his fam­ily to Los An­ge­les when he was 4, later set­tling in Watts. His fa­ther was a jan­i­tor, and his mom stayed home to raise Otis and his three sib­lings. He was 9 when the 1965 Watts ri­ots ex­ploded. Liv­ing in the neigh­bor­hood, Otis said, taught him to per­se­vere in dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions. “I al­ways knew that I started with a huge ad­van­tage: I had two par­ents, a fa­ther who worked, and there was no drug or al­co­hol abuse in the fam­ily.”

Fam­ily drive: His fa­ther, Clarence Otis Sr., never grad­u­ated from high school, but he in­spired his chil­dren with Sun­day drives past the or­nate man­sions of Bev­erly Hills. “He wanted us to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties,” the ex­ec­u­tive said.

Dish­ing out lessons: A guid­ance coun­selor pushed Otis to ac­cept a schol­ar­ship at Wil­liams Col­lege, a lib­eral arts school in Wil­liamstown, Mass., where he grad­u­ated Phi Beta Kappa with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree in eco­nom­ics and po­lit­i­cal sci­ence in 1977. He later earned his law de­gree at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity and headed to the East Coast to work as a se­cu­ri­ties lawyer.

Suc­cess, he learned, had more to do with build­ing a solid team with good chem­istry and less with hir­ing in­di­vid­ual su­per­stars. In in­ter­views, Otis started ask­ing ques­tions that fo­cused on col­lab­o­ra­tion. “How much of the con­ver­sa­tion is ‘we’ ver­sus the use of ‘I’? Could they say who was the we? Did they only talk about their own ac­com­plish­ments, or oth­ers and how they fit into the ef­fort?” he ex­plained.

Talk to me: Over time, Otis said, he found his lead­er­ship style evolv­ing into one that’s cen­tered around lis­ten­ing. “You have to al­low room for other peo­ple to ex­press their views. As you move into lead­er­ship po­si­tions, if you are quick to ex­press your point of view, you never hear any­one else’s. There’s a lot to be said about the power of be­ing quiet ver­sus the power of be­ing heard. I had a self-aware­ness of how I come across to oth­ers. That’s im­por­tant. I didn’t want to come off as crowd­ing other peo­ple out. I don’t think any good man­ager should.” Step­ping into the kitchen: Otis joined Dar­den as trea­surer in 1995, moved up to chief fi­nan­cial of­fi­cer and, by 2004, stepped into the CEO role. His only pre­vi­ous res­tau­rant ex­pe­ri­ence had come in col­lege when he waited ta­bles on sum­mer break. Still, it taught him an im­por­tant les­son: In the din­ing world, you have to like peo­ple — and en­joy pleas­ing even the most dif­fi­cult cus­tomers. “You can train some­one to work in a kitchen. You can train some­one on a wine list,” Otis said. “But if you don’t get charged up by be­ing around peo­ple, then you have no busi­ness be­ing in this busi­ness.”

Sour notes: The ca­sual­din­ing in­dus­try has strug­gled in a tough econ­omy. Early in the re­ces­sion, many of Dar­den’s com­peti­tors slashed their staffs and wooed din­ers with deals. Cus­tomers balked when the free­bies went away.

Times re­main chal­leng­ing. Al­though Dar­den re­ported last week that its fis­cal first-quar­ter profit rose nearly 20% com­pared with the same pe­riod a year ear­lier, its rev­enue growth of 4.2% was slightly be­low ex­pec­ta­tions amid slug­gish sales at Red Lob­ster.

Otis says he fo­cuses on short-term din­ing pro­mo­tions, gen­er­ally avoids deep dis­count­ing and fights to avoid cut­ting staff. “You do that, you’re not look­ing long-term,” he said. “You also break a bond of trust with your em­ploy­ees who stay.”

RESTAU­RA­TEUR:

Lawrence K. Ho

Clarence Otis Jr. at the Cap­i­tal Grille in Los An­ge­les. The brand is one of sev­eral ca­sual-din­ing chains op­er­ated by Dar­den Restau­rants.

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