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.