Olive Garden Illustrates Corporate America’s Worst Financial Tendencies (Updated)

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

The corporate dining titan behind Olive Garden is firing three of its top executives but paying them each millions of dollars to cushion the blow, according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies.

Darden Restaurants will pay outgoing CEO Clarence Otis a weekly salary of more than $23,000 for the next two years as part of a $2.4 million severance. With multi-million-dollar gains on his stock options and the accrued balance of his company retirement account, Otis’ total “golden parachute” amount comes to about $36 million. Two other top executives are walking away with $21 million and $11 million “golden parachutes” of their own, including a combined $2.4 million in severance payments directly from Darden.

Darden has been in headlines in recent weeks mostly because it is under pressure from hedge fund investors to convert its restaurant real estate into cash and leave the business of actually running restaurants to another, newly-created company. One analysis projected that such a maneuver could bring a billion-dollar windfall for Darden shareholders. The company already spun off the Red Lobster chain in similar fashion earlier this year.

While such real estate separations benefit investors and financial industry professionals, they often produce worse outcomes for customers and workers by raising the business’ operating costs and diverting money that could otherwise be invested in higher salaries or product improvements. (Financial journalist David Dayen has called real estate splits forced upon companies by hedge funds and private equity firms “the Wall Street equivalent of pocketing the silverware” from a fancy dinner party.)

From golden parachutes for departing executives to a possible real estate sell-off, the spending choices that Darden is taking at the behest of shareholders illustrate a much broader problem with how America’s largest companies manage their assets today.

As a whole, the S&P; 500 will spend 95 percent of their earnings this year giving money to shareholders rather than investing in their businesses, according to a Bloomberg analysis published Monday. Their examination found $914 billion spending to buy shares back from investors or pay dividends to shareholders. In the first quarter of the year, such spending actually eclipsed profits.

By committing so fully to making shareholders happy, America’s biggest companies have crowded out investments in their workforce and the future output of their businesses. As they doubled their spending on stock buybacks as a proportion of their total cash flow over the past decade, the S&P; 500 companies shrank the share of cash investments in their businesses by a fifth, according to the newspaper. That choice “has left companies with the oldest plants and equipment in almost 60 years.”

In addition to aging infrastructure, the focus on paying shareholders and goosing stock prices above all else has contributed to the ongoing stagnation of wages for working Americans. The contrast between how workers and insiders fair is particularly sharp with Darden, where tipped workers can make as little as $2.13 an hour by a company that is throwing millions of dollars at three men just to get them to leave their executive jobs.

Golden parachutes like Darden’s are fairly common. Former Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit got about $15 million on his way out the door in 2012. The CEO of fossil fuel giant Duke Energy got $44 million to resign his post that same year. And a trio of CEOs who oversaw bailed out banks got a combined $272 million in kiss-off payments from their firms between 2007 and 2009. Whatever connection there once was between corporate compensation and business performance has broken down, and top business officials today routinely receive bonuses despite failing to hit performance targets that were set for them by friendly compensation committees.

The overall ratio of CEO pay to worker pay is almost 300-to-1 for the 350 largest companies in the country. A recent survey found that Americans believe that gap to be ten times smaller, or 30-to-1, and believe that the ideal economy would produce just a 7-to-1 compensation gap between executives and their workers.

Update:

This post originally said that Darden is paying the full $68 million “golden parachute” to its departing executives. The company is in fact paying $4.8 million in direct severance, and the remainder of the funds come from stock options and retirement accruals the men were already entitled to prior to departing the firm.

Update:

“The vast majority of the totals cited reflect already vested stock options and non-forfeitable retirement benefits that the individuals earned over their entire careers at Darden — which spanned 20 years for Mr. Otis, 15 years for Mr. Madsen and 40 years for Mr. Pickens,” a company spokesman said in an email.”