Starboard Value has urged Darden Restaurants Inc to delay the spinoff of its struggling Red Lobster chain, becoming the second activist investor in as many weeks to call on the company to rethink its strategy for improving results.
The calls for change from two investors holding almost 8 percent of Darden shares has put intense pressure on Chairman and Chief Executive Clarence Otis.
Otis has been CEO of the Olive Garden parent since November 2004 and Chairman of Darden's Board of Directors since November 2005. He orchestrated the acquisitions of LongHorn Steakhouse, Capital Grille, Eddie V's and Yard House, which critics say led to a lack of focus, bloated operating costs and roughly 18 months of market share losses at its three biggest brands.
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"The proposed Red Lobster separation is not just a sub-optimal outcome, but one that may prove to be value destructive – potentially even worse for shareholders than the status quo," Starboard Value Managing Member Jeffrey Smith wrote in a letter to Darden's CEO and directors on Tuesday.
"The clock is ticking," said Hedgeye Risk Management restaurant analyst Howard Penney, who previously called for Otis' ouster.
Darden's proposal to spin-off or sell Red Lobster followed a call by Barington Capital Group to split the company in two. One company would operate the mature Olive Garden and Red Lobster chains. The other would expand brands such as LongHorn Steakhouse, Seasons 52, Capital Grille and three others.
Barington also pushed Darden, the largest U.S. full-service restaurant operator, to explore creating a publicly traded real estate investment trust (REIT) to "unlock the value" of its property holdings, which it valued at around $4 billion before leakage costs.
The hedge fund has dubbed Darden's Red Lobster plan "incomplete and inadequate."
In his letter to Darden on Tuesday, Smith called Darden's Red Lobster proposal, "a hurried, reactive attempt, in the face of shareholder pressure to do the bare minimum to appease shareholders."
Smith called on Darden to consider other options to boost share value, including slashing operating costs, improving restaurant results and divesting real estate.
Starboard, which said it owns 5.5 percent of Darden's shares, noted that Darden's best-performing competitors own comparatively little real estate.
A spokesman for Darden did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company previously expressed confidence in its plan. It also said it reviewed the potential for a REIT and determined that substantial costs and other factors did not make that a viable option.
In addition to announcing the plan to spin-off or sell Red Lobster, Otis announced the retirement of Chief Operating officer Drew Madsen, a long-time executive. Madsen's successor was Gene Lee, president of Darden's Specialty Restaurant Group that includes faster-growing chains such as Capital Grill and Yard House.
"Did he buy himself some time, and if so, how long?" asked Bernstein Research restaurant analyst Sara Senatore.
Darden shares, which peaked at around $56 in September 2012, were off 0.8 percent at $50.53 in midday trading.