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Darden Restaurants promotes Ricardo Cardenas to president, Rajesh Vennam to chief financial officer

CEO Gene Lee elected chairman of Board of Directors

Darden Restaurants promoted two executives, naming Ricardo Cardenas president and chief operating officer and Rajesh Vennam chief financial officer. Concurrently, the Board of Directors elected the company’s CEO, Eugene (Gene) I. Lee, as chairman of the Board, succeeding Charles M. Sonsteby. Lee became CEO and joined the board back in 2015.

These management changes take effect January 4, 2021, announced Darden.

“At a time of unprecedented change in our industry, the Board concluded that it is in the best interests of the Company to combine the roles of chairman and CEO in order to drive the most efficient execution of its long-term strategy,” said Sonsteby.

Cardenas, who served as Darden’s chief financial officer since 2016, previously held the role of SVP and chief strategy officer. He rose through the ranks from hourly employee, starting in 1984 to restaurant support center, serving as an auditor in 1992.

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At the executive level, Cardenas served in positions with increasing responsibility: director of Corporate Development, director of Finance and Technology for Seasons 52, VP of Finance and assistant controller for Olive Garden, SVP of Finance and controller for LongHorn Steakhouse, SVP of Finance and controller for Red Lobster, and EVP of Operations for LongHorn Steakhouse.

The new CFO of Orlando Fla.-based Darden, Rajesh Vennam, has been with the company for several non-consecutive years dating back to 2003 when he started as a senior business analyst, Market Development. Before being promoted to director of Financial Planning for LongHorn, he held the position of manager of Treasury.

Vennan joined Red Lobster in 2013 before it was sold in 2014 to Golden Gate Capital, and served as senior director, ascending to the position of SVP, Financial Planning & Analysis and Treasury. Upon returning to Darden in 2016, he served as SVP, Finance & Analytics, assuming treasurer responsibilities in 2020.

[Related article: Consortium acquires 100 percent of Red Lobster]

“The organizational changes announced today reflect our intention to provide Rick and Raj a diversity of experience while creating growth opportunities for them,” said Lee. “Rick has been a strong partner over the past five years, and this role will provide him the opportunity to oversee new areas of the business while broadening his influence across Darden.”

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Darden posted second quarter total revenue of $1.66B, reflecting a 19.4-percent decrease in revenue. Blended comp(arable) sales dropped 20.6 percent from last year, while at Olive Garden, they decreased 19.9 percent. Among its fine-dining concepts, comp sales plunged 31.4 percent.

Dining capacity, restrictions, and consumer hesitancy to return to sit-down restaurants due to COVID-19 have significantly impacted sales. Darden reported that 75 percent of restaurants (with limited or full capacity seating) are open as of December 13, compared to 92 percent on November 8.

Photo credit: Darden Restaurants (featured preview image)

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