Veteran Darden Restaurants executive Dave Pickens will retire this month, and the company will eliminate his position of chief restaurant operations officer.
Pickens, who started with Darden as a 17-year-old Red Lobster line cook in 1973, had been in his current role since July. He had previously been president of Red Lobster and was president of Olive Garden from 2004 to 2011.
Pickens' retirement comes as Darden has struggled with declining sales and profit, and hedge funds are battling with management. The company is preparing to sell or spin off Red Lobster, a move the hedge funds are trying to halt.
Pickens, 58, decided to retire because many initiatives he had overseen were finished, Darden spokesman Rich Jeffers said. After a 41-year career, Jeffers said, "he's looking forward to spending time with his family and enjoying that time."
In the past year, Darden's chief operating officer, chief development officer and chief marketing officer have departed. Two senior human resources executives will leave next month. The company has cut more than 100 other positions.
"There certainly seems to be just a general overarching theme of brain drain going on there," said Mark Kalinowski, a Janney Capital Markets analyst. Pickens has "a solid reputation, although ... Darden faces challenges for reasons, and he's been one of the folks involved with piloting the ship."
Pickens received a $1.9 million compensation package last year, with a base salary of $561,569.
In a memo, Chief Executive Officer Clarence Otis called Pickens "an invaluable partner in leadership" who "is admired and liked by employees at every level throughout the company."
Darden has held up Pickens as an example of how rank-and-file employees can work their way to the top.