Clarence Otis Jr. Biography
In the 2000s African Americans remained rare as chief executives of "Fortune 500" companies—the 500 largest companies in the United States. When Clarence Otis Jr. was named CEO of Darden Restaurants in December of 2004, he was one of just seven. He reached his high-level post not only through skills and hard work but also through versatility: his career led him through law, investment banking, corporate finance, and operations management, and he excelled in each new area he challenged himself with. At the helm of a company with more than 140,000 employees serving over 300 million meals a year, Otis kept a clear focus on corporate essentials. "No matter what a person's level or function is within a company," he explained to Carolyn M. Brown of Black Enterprise, "he or she needs to understand the basics—how that company makes money."
Unlike Joe Lee, the former Darden CEO who became his mentor, Otis didn't have a long background in the restaurant business. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi on April 11, 1956, he moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was young. He grew up in the vast Watts ghetto, at the height of the civil unrest of the 1960s. His father worked as a janitor for the city of Los Angeles, and his mother Calanthus Hall Otis, a homemaker, insisted that her children work hard in school and finish all their homework. The result in Clarence Otis's case was a high-school standout who won admission and a scholarship to prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts after being encouraged to apply by Los Angeles lawyer Felix Grossman.
Otis's scholastic record at Williams was likewise a distinguished one. He graduated magna cum laude in 1977 with dual majors in economics and political science, receiving the school's Political Science Writing Prize and Phi Beta Kappa recognition in his senior year. Otis moved on to Stanford University Law School in California, earning his law degree in 1980. For four years in the early 1980s, Otis worked in the field of corporate law, specializing in the fields of securities law and mergers and acquisitions. He started out with the firm Donovan Leisure Newton & Irvine and moved on to Gordon, Hurwitz, Butowsky, Weitzen, Shalov & Wein. From the start he ran with a high-flying crowd; one of his clients was famed financier Carl Icahn. Otis and his wife Jacqueline Bradley were married in 1983 and have raised three children. Bradley later became board director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.
But, he told Jerry W. Jackson of the Orlando Sentinel, "I thought the finance side was more exciting than the law, so I moved to an investment banking firm"—Kidder, Peabody & Company. The barely 30-year-old Otis became a vice president at First Boston Corporation in 1987. In this job he got his first exposure to Florida's booming economy as he worked on real estate deals there. He became interested in public and government finance, serving as managing director of Giebert Municipal Capital in 1990 and 1991, and as a vice president and later managing director in Chemical Bank's securities arm between 1991 and 1995. He played a key part in turning around the bank's struggling public finance division, shepherding funding of $2.6 billion for tax-exempt pollution-control projects and participating a $208 million New York City bond issue that was named deal of the year by Institutional Investor magazine.
In 1995, Otis was recruited by Darden Restaurants in Orlando for the post of treasurer, overseeing finance activities for the 1,200-restaurant chain. He correctly assessed Darden as a company on the rise as its "casual dining" market niche—high-volume sit-down restaurants a step above fast food in terms of quality—was growing rapidly. His biggest motivator, however seemed once again to be the opportunity to acquire a new skill set. "It's just the opportunity to broaden the work I do in the capital markets to include equity and taxable fixed-income," he told The Bond Buyer in explanation of his rationale for the move. "And it gives me a chance to work in operational finance, which was a big factor driving this decision." Otis came to the company in the final stages of its spin-off from food giant General Mills.
Indeed, while Otis supervised a staff of six, his decisions had companywide ramifications as Darden acquired new sites and financed new buildings all over the country; the chain owns its restaurants rather than franchising them to independent entrepreneurs. He ascended the corporate ladder at Darden, becoming senior vice president of finance in 1997 and chief financial officer in 1999. As the chain shuttered its struggling China Coast restaurants and opened new ventures such as the casual sports-bar barbecue Smokey Bones and the Caribbean-themed Bahama Breeze, Otis impressed his bosses at Darden with his ability to master and apply new skills. "In the seven-plus years that Clarence has been here at Darden," company president Richard Rivera told Nation's Restaurant News when Otis was elevated to the presidency of the rapidly growing Smokey Bones unit in 2003, "he's demonstrated tremendous leadership skills on an enterprise-wide basis in areas that went way beyond his functional responsibilities." Simply put, Otis was always ready to help out above and beyond what was required.
That willingness paid off when longtime Darden CEO Joe L. Lee, who opened the first Red Lobster restaurant in Florida in 1967, approached retirement. Otis was widely regarded as a protégé of Lee, and after one of his top rivals left for a top position with Burger King, his way was clear. Otis was named Lee's successor as CEO in 2004. He spoke of holding to Lee's cautious, research-driven approach, telling Susan Strother Clarke of the Orlando Sentinel that "This is not a gut-driven business."
In Florida, Otis continued a commitment to community involvement that had begun in New York with his memberships on the boards of the YMCA of Greater New York and One Hundred Black Men, Inc., among other organizations. He served on the boards of numerous Florida nonprofits, including Enterprise Florida and Preserve Eatonville. He faced numerous challenges as Darden CEO: the company's flagship Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains were mature, and each had suffered from flat sales at times. Otis was able to boast of strong sales increases for those two chains in a conference call with investors in the summer of 2005, and he looked to future initiatives such as expansion of the small Darden healthy-food chain Seasons 52 as he built on his own impressive record of successes and accomplishments.
Black Enterprise, October 1995, p. 22; November 2004, p. 28; February 2005, p. 114.
Bond Buyer, June 21, 1995, p. 4.
Forbes, November 6, 1995, p. 354.
Jet, August 30, 2004, p. 38.
Nation's Restaurant News, January 6, 2003, p. 1; August 23, 2004, p. 3.
Orlando Sentinel, August 13, 2004, p. C1; November 14, 2004, p. H1.
Restaurant Business, September 1, 2004, p. 14.
CNBC/Dow Jones Business Video, March 23, 2005; June 21, 2005.