The restaurant industry was hit hard in 2009 as millions of Americans tightened their belts in the wake of the economic downturn and stopped splurging on dining out and other non-essentials. While some food service companies shed jobs and others closed their doors, Darden Restaurants, Inc, the largest casual-dining company in the world, parent company of such chains as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, has continued to excel because they were ready for the decline. Clarence Otis, president and CEO of the company, says that the management team at Darden recognized months in advance that the economy was about to shift, and started to implement changes so that when the recession arrived, they were prepared.

On March 3, Otis was recognized with the Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award at Mays. This award is given in memory of Harold Kupfer ’54 and recognizes a business professional that has made a significant impact on the business world. Otis spent time on the A&M campus sharing his business knowledge with students and faculty alike.

“To nourish and delight”

To prepare for the economic downturn, Otis says that his company invested in their brand, knowing that aligning all consumer touch points with their brand to make sure every dining experience reinforced their brand promise. They also invested in their people. People do their best work when they understand the larger purpose, he says. The purpose they reinforced to the approximately 180,000 employees was “to nourish and delight customers,” refreshing their spirits as well as their bodies by providing an experience, not merely a meal.

For Darden Restaurants CEO and Kupfer Distinguished Executive Award honoree Clarence Otis, Jr., investing in his company’s employees is essential. “We assume that everyone that walks in our doors can go all the way to the top.” (view more photos)

Otis gave the example of a dish washer, who must clean 2,000 dishes on a busy night at one of their restaurants. While his job is vital to the success of the organization, it is not fun or glamorous; it would be easy for that employee to focus on the functional requirements of the job, rather than the larger purpose. Otis says that leaders must continue to invest time in training and appreciating their employees to prevent that erosion of purpose.

While it’s important to keep your promises to customers, it’s equally important to keep promises to employees. The restaurant business is an industry of opportunity for millions of Americans, as people are able to start at the bottom and progress through the ranks of the company, regardless of their formal education. “We encourage our employees to dream big dreams for themselves,” he says—dreams which the company will support. “We assume that everyone that walks in our doors can go all the way to the top.” Otis mentioned Dave Pickens, president of Olive Garden, who started as a line cook at a Red Lobster. After three decades, he is now responsible for 80,000 employees.

“Some say that an economic crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” says Otis, noting that some companies are using this circumstance as an excuse to abuse employees by reducing staff or scaling back benefits unnecessarily. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Otis says at Darden they’ve striven to maintain a relationship with employees; Darden’s leadership understands their brand and success depends on their people. Otis did note that Darden’s operations have been streamlined, with a recent consolidation of 13 office buildings into one main facility. “We’re proceeding with confidence in today’s challenging environment.”

Kupfer’s legacy

Mr. Kupfer entered Texas A&M in 1950, where he was assigned to Field Artillery Battery A, participated in intramural boxing and the Fish Drill Team. While at A&M, he was also an active member of the Business Society, Dallas Club, Press Club and was club editor of the 1954 Aggieland. He graduated in 1954 with a bachelor’s in business administration, going on to serve as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

(L to R) Gerald Ray '54, Clarence Otis, Jr., Greg Dyer '10 and Donald Zale '55
(L to R) Gerald Ray ’54, Clarence Otis, Jr., Greg Dyer ’10 and Donald Zale ’55

After leaving the military, Kupfer began his investment career with Sanders and Co., a Dallas investment firm. Later, he became head trader and partner at Rauscher Pierce Refsnes, Inc. His last professional association was with Jefferies & Co., Inc. where he earned a place in the Jefferies “Hall of Fame.” The company also gives an award in Kupfer’s name, recognizing his excellence as a sales professional.

Gerald Ray ’54 and Donald Zale ’55 sponsor the Kupfer Distinguished Executive event at Mays to honor their friend and fellow Corps member. As part of this celebration, they also gave a scholarship to a Corps member that exemplifies the professionalism, enthusiasm, and dedication to service that defined Kupfer, whom Ray described as “a really wonderful man and certainly an unforgettable character.” The 2010 scholarship recipient was Greg Dyer ’10, who will graduate in May with a degree in finance.

Dyer’s resume is impressive and varied: he’s completed an internship in securities investment with Merrill Lynch; he has also worked for the A&M College of Veterinary Medicine as a lab technician, and as a personal care provider for a physically handicapped child. He is the second brigade commander in the Corps, responsible for 190 cadets and is a Ross Volunteer. Despite a busy schedule with his Corps duties, he is a dedicated student and a member of the General O.R. Simpson Honor Society, which recognizes his academic achievements and affords him the opportunity to tutor other students. Dyer was also chosen as one of the 47 undergraduates from A&M (nine from Mays) to be listed among the 2010 Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. Dyer is also an Eagle Scout.

At the awards luncheon, Dyer said he was humbled to receive the award in Kupfer’s name, and gave credit to his family for the achievements that garnered him the recognition. “Success is a product of tenacity, opportunity, and support,” he said, noting that without the support of his parents, grandparents, and A&M family, he could not be successful. Dyer called A&M “a place of limitless opportunity,” and said that he would use the example of Kupfer and Otis as “a model for all my future endeavors.”