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MEC prepares for a packed house at its annual meeting

Business success depends on creating and maintaining a great culture.

That’s the message Mississippi native Clarence Otis Jr. will deliver at the 57th-annual Mississippi Economic Council (MEC) meeting May 10 at the Marriott in downtown Jackson.

“I’ll address four key elements that I believe have helped Darden create a winning culture: having a core purpose that centers on making a positive difference in the lives of others; embracing and fostering diversity; being involved in the community; and dreaming big dreams on the way to accomplishing them,” said Otis, CEO of Darden Restaurants Inc., (NSYE: DRI) the world’s largest casual dining restaurant company, parent company of Red Lobster and Olive Garden and others.

The growth of MEC membership and drawing Otis as the keynote speaker attributed to selling out the annual meeting three weeks before the event, the first time this far in advance for the annual event in recent years.

“Everybody wants to hear his story, and we were pleased to recruit another native Mississippian,” said MEC president Blake Wilson. “The concept of bringing back talented, well-known Mississippians who have done well has really worked. Every state doesn’t have this, and it’s been a great tool. People in Brookhaven knew that Bob Pittman (then at AOL) was from the area, but few others realized it. John Bryan had been with the company for so long — he was named CEO of the Sara Lee Corporation in the 1960s- — hat some people had forgotten he grew up here. Furniture Brands International chairman Mickey Holloman surprised people. Probably one of the most recognizable, perhaps because he made such a generous donation, was Jim Barksdale.”

Otis was four when his family moved from Vicksburg, where his dad was a mill laborer until the U.S. halted trade with Cuba and he lost his job.

“He had been stationed at Camp Pendleton as a Marine during the Korean War, so he was familiar with California and moved the family there in 1960,” said Otis. “He took a job as a city janitor at the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and later was transferred to Los Angeles International Airport, where he eventually became a manager for all airport custodial operations.”

In 1977, Otis graduated magna cum laude from Williams College in Massachusetts and then graduated from Stanford Law School. After a meteoric rise in the corporate world, and nine years of dishing up successful strategies as executive vice president for Darden, he became the seventh African-American to lead a Fortune 500 company when he was named CEO in December 2004.

“At Darden, we’re doing business in dynamic communities across North America and none are more impressive to me than this group of Mississippi leaders,” said Otis. “We have great respect for Gov. Barbour, Blake Wilson and the public-private partnership in the state.”

Otis has quietly visited the state over the past several decades. “My father was from a big family, which held family reunions in Vicksburg every other year,” he said. “We have great memories of having the casual family dinner at his brother’s restaurant, LD’s Kitchen.”

When Otis learned the MEC annual event had sold out in record time, he attributed the strong response “more to do with Mississippi leaders coming together nine months after a natural disaster to roll up their sleeves and get back to business.”

“These are the business and political leaders that are dreaming big dreams in Mississippi,” he said. “They will create a great culture, which is the foundation for taking the quality of life and economic prosperity in this state to new heights.”

Mississippi businesses have jumped on the bandwagon to support the annual meeting, said Wilson.

“What makes this event so special is that it’s a celebration of Mississippi business,” he said. “Corporate sponsors make it a very successful event. It’s amazing to look around the room and see all the banners and read the program. It shows the support of MEC and is a tribute to the leadership of this organization. It’s nice to see so many people fly their flags, so to speak.”

The annual meeting will begin with a morning session featuring educational panelists, beginning at 9:15 a.m., followed by a panel session on Momentum Mississippi. In addition to an address by Gov. Haley Barbour and program participation by Lt. Gov. Amy Tuck, House Speaker Billy McCoy and Miss Mississippi Kristian Dambrino, Ricky Mathews, president and publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Sun-Herald, will discuss what’s happening along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. A men’s choir from Alcorn State University will entertain the crowd, and attendees will “try out” the state’s new voting machines by voting on their favorite things in Mississippi.

“We’ll be done by two o’clock and a good time will be had by all,” said Wilson.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.


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