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Smokey Bones

Fun Eph discussion at the 2:20 mark about Clarence Otis ’77 and the quarterly conference call for Darden, the company of which he is the CEO. (Link here if embedded video does not appear.)


Otis ’77 Interview

Interesting New York Times interview with Clarence Otis ’77.

07corner-190Q. Anything in your background that, looking back, prepared you for the art of building a team?

A. The thing that prepared me the most — where the team was front and center — was theater, which I did a lot of growing up, in high school, during college, law school and even for a couple of years after law school. I would say that probably is the starkest lesson in how reliant you are on others, because you’re there in front of an audience. It’s all live, and everybody’s got to know their lines and know their cues and know their movement, and so you’re totally dependent on people doing that.

You could have your piece down, but if one person on the team doesn’t, you’re in trouble, and it’s embarrassing because people aren’t used to seeing errors in theater. Theater is seamless every night.

Q. Do you find, looking back over the course of your career, there was a certain insight you had that put you on a different trajectory?

A. I went to Williams College. I went to Stanford Law School. And I loved them both. I was a strong student at Williams, which I needed to be to get into a school like Stanford. I got to Stanford, and it was clear that the level of brain power among my student peers had just stepped up several levels. It was clear to me pretty quickly that no matter how hard I worked, I was not going to do better than a lot of my peers, because things came quicker to them than they did to me. Even though that was not true at Williams, it was true at Stanford. But that was fine, and I was comfortable with that.

What I discovered when I started practicing law was that, even though others had more intellectual horsepower, people still listened to me. They cared about what I thought — my peers, and the people I worked for. And so, that was probably the insight that told me at some point I could have a leadership position, because people really seemed to care what I thought, and they listened to me.

Q. What’s your version of a two-minute commencement speech?

A. I would tell them that they’re privileged, given the status that they have, the fact that they’ve been able to get a higher education. And with privilege comes obligations. I think one of the most important obligations is for them to provide leadership in whatever area they choose to dedicate their life to.

Provide leadership — that’s the price of the privilege they’ve been granted. So it’s about more than them. Certainly, there are things they want to accomplish, but they’ve got to make sure that those things have some payoff for others.

Read the whole thing. Is that what Otis said at his Commencement address at Williams?


Education and Dialogue

Larry George makes an excellent point.

And, most sadly of all and for all of us in the Williams community, assuming that Red Lobster, Olive Gardens, and other chain restaurants are not doing the most they (feasibly and economically) could, a real chance is being lost for education and dialogue and for Williams and Williams-Mystic students and faculty to work with Mr. Otis and use his buying power to make a marked difference in the world, particularly in the fisheries area. The other way of saying that is that there is potentially a huge opportunity, for both Mr. Otis and the college, in this situation. I wish this were the kind of forum where ideas for productive collaboration were being raised and developed, instead of having snarkiness honed.

Me too. Who is willing to lead that discussion?


Clarence Otis ’77 Speech

Clarence Otis Jr., Commencement Address, “Fulfilling Our Leadership Obligation.” Best part:

And, I think about educators who came into my life after Watts — about people like the late Bill Oliver, our Calculus professor my first semester, freshman year, here at Williams. I recall how, as I struggled with the material, Professor Oliver chose to believe my challenges reflected poor preparation, not poor intellect, and so he tutored me one on one after every class for the entire semester. Yet, what struck me most, the most important statement Professor Oliver made about the legitimacy of my presence at Williams was not the tutoring; it was when he had me over to his home for Thanksgiving dinner that year.

Do any readers have memories of Professor Oliver to share? I was sad that this speech did not include a description of how Otis came to Williams and a shout-out to Buster Grossman ’56.

As the leading proponent of having alumni, like Otis, give the Commencement speech, I was, overall, disappointed by this effort. With the exception of the paragraph I quoted, there was almost nothing that was Williams-specific. But reading it and being there are two different things. How was it received in person?


Pay at the Top

The New York Times published a listing of executive compensation. The only Eph I saw was Clarence Otis ’77, CEO of Darden restaurants. Otis earned $5.3 million in both 2007 and 2008. Any other Ephs on the list?

My proposal to solve the problem of excessive executive compensation at public companies is here, derived from an idea originally published on EphBlog five years ago today. Genius, I say, pure genius. Alas, despite donating money to Obama, I can’t get anyone at the SEC or in Congress to take this idea seriously. I wonder why . . .


Clarence Otis Jr. ’77

As Will Slack has nostalgically reminded us, the end of the 2009 school year is almost here. For many Ephs this means summer jobs, and time at home catching up with family and friends.

But for roughly a quarter of the Williams student population, this is a more poignant time, one that entails packing up for good rather than filling a storage unit, and saying goodbye to friends with whom they have shared their lives for the last four years. It also means graduation, the ultimate denouement to four years of challenging and life-changing study.

This June, the commencement speaker will be Clarence Otis Jr. ’77. And in a year in which the job market might seem especially daunting, this man’s story is one to inspire.

Special thanks to ‘Brother Spotless’ for posting this lively introduction in “Speak Up”. I look forward to hearing more from him and Mr. Otis.

Both articles are a good read. Enjoy!

Hungry? Well Williams College Alum Clarence Otis Jr. (class of ‘77) knows how to feed you. As CEO of Darden Restaurants Inc., Otis runs the largest casual dining corporation in the nation, including restaurant chains Red Lobster and The Olive Garden.

Otis will be the Williams College Class of 2009 Commencement speaker. Hopefully he brings cheddar bay biscuits; the hungover graduates-to-be would be ever-grateful…


Other Half

Jeff Delaney of Postgraduate Musings sent in this article on Clarence Otis ’77.

Clarence Otis Jr., CEO of Darden Restaurants (DRI), will never forget the Sunday drives his family took through Beverly Hills when he was a boy.

Each began and ended in Watts. In 1965, the South Los Angeles area was the scene of riots that killed 34 and injured more than 1,000, but to Otis, who was 9 at the time, it simply was home.

Otis’ father, a janitor, took his family to Beverly Hills not to gawk in envy. It was his way to show the kids another world was out there, and let them know it wasn’t out of their reach.

“Those drives showed me how the other half lived,” Otis recalls. “They made me believe another life was possible.”

Was it ever.

Two years ago this month, at age 48, Otis was named CEO of the largest casual-dining restaurant company, overseeing such mega-brands as Olive Garden and Red Lobster. He’s one of only a handful of African-American CEOs running Fortune 500 companies. At home in Orlando, he and his wife, Jacqui, are amassing one of the finest collections of African-American art in the nation.

Read the whole things. Prior EphBlog coverage of Otis here and here.

The challenges of being raised in Watts were real. There was gang activity at the time, though it was not drug-infested, Clarence Jr. notes. Growing up there, he says, he learned to interact with everyone.

He had friends who were scholars and others who became gang leaders. A few friends were killed in gang violence.

During the Watts riots, his parents wouldn’t let him and his siblings outside. After that, he had to learn how to make do on his own.

“You kind of have an urban street map in your head,” he says. “You just try to avoid the places where gangs hang out.”

Almost every black, male teen in Watts knew one drill only too well: being regularly stopped by cops and questioned. Otis recalls being stopped “several” times a year. He certainly didn’t like it, but he had little choice but to put up with it.

The whole neighborhood put up with a lot. There were few public services in Watts then, including no public transportation. “You either drove, or you didn’t get around,” he says.

But Otis had options. That’s mostly because his parents demanded good grades. And a caring guidance counselor steered Otis toward a scholarship at Williams College, a liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass.

“A lot of people reached out to help me,” Otis says. “Positive discrimination happens, too.”

Indeed. I think that Buster Grossman ’56 had a part in this story, but I can’t find that story on-line. Note that Otis graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Williams. I knew lots of smart people who didn’t get PBK, but not a single dumb one who did. So, study hard young Ephs. You too can become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.


Clarence Otis’s Big Break

Great profile of one of the more successful Ephs out there, Clarence Otis. He gives numerous shout-outs to Williams and, in particular, the Williams alumni network. I am surprised I beat Kane to this story given his affection for all things networking. Go me.


Otis ’77 new CEO of Darden

Great article about former Williams trustee (and CEO of Darden Restaurants) Clarence Otis ’77.

Otis was an unlikely choice in the eyes of some Wall Street observers to replace the retiring patriarch, considering his financial, rather than operational, background.

But Darden’s former chief financial officer did serve a two-year stint starting in 2002 at the helm of the company’s Smokey Bones barbecue unit, which doubled in size under his direction.

He is a decided change of pace for the company and its 141,000 employees. During a recent interview, Otis balked at discussing himself or his past, saying he didn’t want the spotlight during this important time of change at Darden.

I can’t think of an Eph who has more people working for him than Otis does. He is one of only three Ephs in charge of a S&P 500 company. The other two are Mayo Shattuck ’76 of Constellation Energy and Henry Silverman ’61 of Cendant.

Fans of the web of Eph influence will note that Otis serves on the board of St. Paul Travelers, along with trustee Robert Lipp ’60 and Dean Nancy Roseman. Lipp, chair of the executive committe of the board of trustees (i.e., lead trustee in charge) is almost certainly the person who recruited Otis (and Roseman) to the board.

There is nothing wrong with that, of course. Indeed, part of Lipp’s job as chairman of Travelers is to find smart, hard-working folks like Otis and Roseman to recruit to the board of directors. But critics of, say, George W. Bush’s business career should note that personal relationships play a role for everyone.

Indeed, one of the quips back in the day was that the main thing that we learned at Williams was how to make conversation aroun the keg. There was more than a little truth to that, of course. But what I didn’t realize till many years later is that being able to make conversation around the keg is a critically important skill in the business world.

Although I have never met Otis (or Lipp, Silverman, Shattuck, et al), I feel certain that he is a charming, engaging, personable fellow. It is almost impossible to climb to the top of a large company without these sorts of people skills, as well as many other talents.

So, current Ephs should be sure to spend a lot of time standing around the keg and making conversation this Winter Study. Your future success in the business world depends on it!

The whole article is a great read, but, for me, the best part is:

Family and friends describe Otis as intelligent, humble and driven to succeed.

His father, Clarence Otis Sr., 72, remembers the day he picked up the phone to hear the news of his son’s promotion at Darden: “I finally made it to the top, dad,” his son told him.

Otis is not the only Eph who hopes to impress his father some day.


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