(Recasts throughout; adds Barington Capital comment, Starboard
By Lisa Baertlein
March 3 The activist investor seeking to split
Darden Restaurants Inc into two companies said on Monday
it has lost confidence in its chief executive's ability to run
Barington Capital Group LP wants Darden to put its
more-mature Olive Garden and Red Lobster brands into one company
and its higher-growth chains, including LongHorn Steakhouse and
the Capital Grille, into another. It also has called on the
company to create a publicly traded real estate investment trust
(REIT) to unlock the value of its property holdings.
Darden on Monday reiterated it would proceed with its own
plan to spin off or sell Red Lobster, rebuffing Barington and
Starboard Value LP, another activist investor that is pressuring
Darden to rethink its plans for the seafood chain.
Darden, the largest U.S. operator of full-service
restaurants, also warned that its third-quarter profit fell far
short of Wall Street expectations, blaming severe winter weather
for hammering sales.
"Darden's deteriorating financial performance and decision
to continue to separate Red Lobster without pursuing
opportunities to monetize its valuable real estate have caused
us to lose all confidence in the ability of (CEO) Clarence Otis
to manage the company," Barington Chairman and CEO James
Mitarotonda said in a statement.
Barington previously had called on Darden's directors to
split the chairman and chief executive roles.
Shares in Darden were down 5.6 percent at $48.22 in late
afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Darden and other established full-service restaurant chains
have been struggling to compete with newer chains including
Panera Bread Co and Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc,
which use more upscale ingredients such as organic produce and
antibiotic-free meats and do not offer table service,
eliminating the need for patrons to tip.
Starboard, which owns 5.5 percent of Darden, said last week
that Darden's plan to spin off Red Lobster should be delayed and
put to a shareholder vote. Barington, which has a stake of about
2 percent, agreed.
Darden said on Monday that its board had explored the
tax-free spinoff of a REIT and other strategic and financial
alternatives with its advisers and determined that the plans
announced in December were the best way forward.
The company said it remained on track to execute its plan to
separate the Red Lobster business through either a tax-free
spinoff to Darden shareholders or a sale, adding that the sale
process was well under way.
The company also said it expected to earn 82 cents per share
from continuing operations for the quarter ended Feb. 23.
Analysts on average had expected 93 cents per share, according
to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Lower sales and higher direct costs associated with severe
winter weather had reduced earnings by about 7 cents per share
in the third quarter, Darden said.
The Orlando-based company estimated that U.S.
same-restaurant sales fell 5.4 percent at Olive Garden and 8.8
percent at Red Lobster.
Darden is due to report third-quarter earnings on March 21.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Aditi
Shrivastava in Bangalore; Editing by Kirti Pandey, Ted Kerr and