Exterior of an Olive Garden restaurant.

Olive Garden

Incoming CEO Rick Cardenas began as an hourly employee at a Darden restaurant in 1984. 

Darden CEO Gene Lee to Retire Next Year

The industry veteran joined the company in 2007 and has served as CEO for seven years. 

Olive Garden parent Darden Restaurants announced Friday that CEO Gene Lee will retire effective May 29. 

President and COO Rick Cardenas will succeed Lee, a move that was approved unanimously by the company's board of directors. Lee will remain as executive chairman until Darden's 2022 Annual Meeting of Shareholders, at which time he will stand for re-election as chairman in a non-executive capacity. 

Lee joined Darden in 2007 after the company acquired RARE Hospitality International, which operated LongHorn Steakhouse and Capital Grille. For six years, he served as president of Darden's Speciality Restaurant Group and oversaw its expansion from 60 to 175 restaurants—including the purchase of Eddie V's and Yard House—and annualized sales of 17 percent and annual restaurant earnings growth of 26 percent. 

He then briefly worked as president and COO before being named interim CEO in October 2014 after shareholder Starboard Value replaced Darden's entire board of directors. In February 2015, the interim tag was removed and he became the permanent chief executive. 

"The Board and I are delighted that Rick will serve as Darden's next CEO," Lee said in a statement. "He has deep knowledge of our company and the industry, and has been a valued strategic thought partner to me and the senior management team. I am confident that he has the integrity, vision and leadership skills necessary to ensure Darden and its brands continue to successfully grow and be of service to our team members, our guests and our shareholders."

Cardenas started as an hourly worker at a Darden restaurant in 1984 before entering the restaurant support team in 1992 as an auditor. After years in a variety executive roles for Olive Garden, Seasons 52, LongHorn, and Red Lobster, he moved up to senior vice president and chief strategy officer and then to CFO. In January, he was appointed as president and COO. 

He graduated summa cum laude from Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in finance and accounting. He also earned an MBA from The Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth.

"It is an honor to be appointed Darden's next Chief Executive Officer, and I am grateful to Gene and the Board for their confidence in me," Cardenas said in a statement. "It is humbling to lead 170,000 outstanding team members who nourish and delight everyone we serve."

"I was incredibly fortunate to work with each of Darden's previous CEOs, so I have a strong appreciation for the legacy of leadership I am inheriting," he added. "By upholding our commitment to operational excellence and maximizing the power of the Darden platform, we will continue to execute our strategy to drive growth and shareholder value."