Monday, February 13, 2006

Investors vs. casual-dining giants?

Wall Street is already speculating that Outback Steakhouse Inc. may be the next restaurant company to be goaded by shareholders into spinning off secondary chains. Some say that’s a reason, at least in part, for the 30% catapult in the company’s stock price since the fall. With six chains available for auction, the proceeds would be helium to investors’ holdings.

No word yet on how much the casual-dining giant could garner by selling tickets to a headquarters-investor brawl. And it likely would be an event worthy of World Wrestling Federation sanction. Outback’s ad theme—“No rules. Just Right.” — could just as easily apply to its management approach. Or, as a former executive put it before he left, “We get a ‘D’ in conduct, but an ‘A’ in results.” It’s a company that likes to do things its own way, and seems to cherish that independent thinking, right down to the propensity of a co-founder to show up at solidly Brooks Brothers events in a cardigan sweater.

Yet that slugfest would look like a Golden Gloves warm-up compared with the real heavyweight bout: Darden Restaurants vs. a pushy hedge fund. Mind you, no activist shareholder has disclosed an interest in the Red Lobster and Olive Garden parent, just as no green-mailer has publicly leaned on Outback (though the banking firm Friedman Billings Ramsey has tabulated that a break-up would add $20.85 to Outback’s share price, according to a report in the Tampa Tribune). But there are two things the hedge hogs like: Real estate, and headquarters spending. Darden loves to buy the real estate for its brands, and has a lot of it. It also has an infrastructure that’s an envy of the industry, with money (wisely) spent on extensive research and R&D (its menu-development facility not only has a mock-up of a Red Lobster kitchen, but also a model of an Outback hot line, apparently so the ease of knocking off a new item can be assessed). Executives who have left the firm speak wistfully of those resources and the company’s willingness to invest. They realize the value of that spending. But a hard-nosed return-calculator might view it all as G&A begging to be machete’d.

Yet Darden has seemingly relished its independence since being spun off from General Mills in the mid-1990s. At the time, executives spoke of the advantages of being a restaurant company run by restaurateurs. Second-guessing from an outside investment concern, quite likely with no hands-on experience in running restaurants, could be a bad clam for Darden to swallow. And it’s not a company lacking in leadership, resources or determination.

It would be an Olympian contest, without the snow and ice.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. It relates perfectly with a piece that appeared on The Restaurant Blog today. Keep up the great work and information