Activist Starboard takes 5.6 pct Darden stake, plans push for change-source

Reuters

By Jessica Toonkel

NEW YORK, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Activist investor Starboard Value LP has taken a 5.6 percent stake in Darden Restaurants Inc , which it plans to disclose in a regulatory filing Monday, according to a person familiar with the situation.

The purchase of the stake, worth about $374 million according to Darden's market value at the close of trading on Friday, means Starboard will become the second activist investor within months to push for a change in strategy as the Orlando, Florida-based company seeks cost cuts to stem a fall in profit.

The investment firm's filing comes just days after Darden, which owns the Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse chains, announced plans to spin off its Red Lobster restaurant business.

In its filing, Starboard will state that it does not believe spinning off Red Lobster is enough to benefit shareholders, according to the person familiar with the situation. Instead, Starboard wants Darden to first create a real estate investment trust (REIT) for its property holdings.

Then the firm wants Darden to combine its Red Lobster, Olive Garden and LongHorn Steakhouse businesses into one company, while grouping the rest of its faster-growing chains in another, according to the person, who wished to remain anonymous because of the confidentiality of the situation.

A Darden spokesman declined to comment, but did say the firm had not been contacted by Starboard.

Starboard's plans were first reported in The Wall Street Journal Sunday night.

In October, Darden investor Barington Capital Group LP called on the company to carve out its Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains into a separate business, put its real estate holdings into a REIT and cut costs.

Starboard has not reached out to Barington but has had conversations with other shareholders who are unhappy with the company's plans, the person familiar with the situation said.

On Thursday, Darden announced plans to cut costs, slow expansion, which included plans to sell or spin off Red Lobster.

The company's shares dropped 3.6 percent on Thursday, but recovered the following day to end the week at $51.09, up 13 percent for the year.

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