Nearly a year before assuming the helm at Darden Restaurants in 2004, Clarence Otis met with Chief Executive Officer Joe Lee to plot the future.
Together, in a series of meetings, Otis, Lee and another key leader, Drew Madsen, set goals for Orlando's only Fortune 500 company.
"We took a hard look," Otis said. "And we established a big dream."
Now, Otis, 52, is facing an economic crisis that threatens to undermine the health of his company and the dream to create a multibrand restaurant powerhouse. The credit crunch and housing slump have conspired to crimp consumer spending, particularly at full-service restaurants such as the more than 1,700 run by Darden, including Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
Costs are rising, squeezing already razor-thin profits. And signs suggest that consumers might be tiring of the sameness that pervades casual-dining restaurants.
But Otis is still thinking big.
Four years after taking over the company, Otis has remade Darden in his own image. He has replaced much of the senior management team, focused on the bottom line, bought a steak chain and ditched a barbecue division he once ran. Many of the changes were in keeping with the goals that Otis, Madsen and Lee sat down to plot out.
Otis admits that the current climate is "challenging" for his restaurants. But he says Darden can manage costs because its size and the company's big, well-known brands will help it stand out from the competition.
Most of all, Otis is not willing to let short-term obstacles distract from long-term goals.
In fact, Otis says, Darden will likely have to snap up more restaurant chains to satisfy his company's -- and investors' -- appetite for growth.
"Sometime down the road, we'll add more brands, but when that is going to happen remains to be seen," Otis said during a recent interview at the company's Orlando headquarters on Lake Ellenor Drive.
The immediate future is likely to be challenging.
"Casual dining is going to have a rough go of it this year and through 2009," said John Owens, a restaurant-stock analyst for investment-research firm Morningstar.
'He is very focused'
Considered a restaurant-industry novice when he joined Darden in 1995, Otis has replaced most of the senior staff with people loyal to him. Indeed, key members of the company's longtime leadership team under Lee, including Blaine Sweatt and Rich Walsh, have left the company.
"Basically, Clarence came in and said, 'I have got to have people [who] I pick,' " said Mark Given, a former regional vice president of Olive Garden who had close ties to senior management.
Sweatt, who was in charge of new restaurant concepts, announced his retirement from the company in 2007. Walsh retired in 2006.
"He is smart, and he is very focused," Walsh said of Otis. "I think he has navigated some very rough waters the past few years very well."
Dick Rivera, a former Darden vice chairman and president who worked alongside Otis, said he proved to be a fast learner of the restaurant business, despite coming from a financial background.