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Matt Shay Remakes National Retail Federation

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call
Matt Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, has increased the trade association’s lobbying budget and Beltway presence since taking the helm of the group.

“These are all indicators of a new level of engagement,” Shay said. “Our rapid organizational change reflects changes in the industry.”

Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said Shay helped rally his forces “in a very effective way” during the debit card interchange fee debate last year. “He showed his membership what an investment in stronger advocacy capabilities can do,” she said.

But when it comes to the retail industry, Shay’s is not the only game in town. The retail federation represents a huge roster of retailers (Macy’s, Dillards, mom and pops), but the megastores and big brands — Walmart, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond — have their own Retail Industry Leaders of America. RILA, just before Shay came aboard the federation, initiated a merger between the two organizations, then backed out in mid-2009.

Shay said the two retail trade groups generally have broad agreement on the objectives but “occasional disagreements on the tactics.”

Still, they do work together. For example, Shay co-hosted a fundraiser last week for Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) along with Sandy Kennedy, RILA’s president.

“We work very well with them, whether it was work on the Employee Free Choice Act, trade policy or the e-fairness debate,” said RILA top lobbyist Katherine Lugar, a former NRF lobbyist who is the Senator’s daughter-in-law. “We have different memberships at this point. I think they appreciate the large, well-known brands we bring to the table.”

Not all of RILA’s members see the NRF as a key to the retail industry’s success in Washington. One RILA member, speaking on background, said RILA is a bigger force behind the stepped-up presence of retailers, not the federation. “If RILA is the ballet dancers, NRF is the line dancers,” this RILA member said.

But NRF members say Shay has helped build consensus in the highly competitive industry.

“Retailers are all, generally speaking, very competitive,” said Dean Elliott, director of governmental affairs for Dillards. “Matt has actually come in and really pulled the leaders within the different retailers together to create a common goal.”

And Shay’s profile is not limited to the retail federation.

He serves as chairman of the American Society of Association Executives’ key industry associations committee — a role that recently took him to the White House to argue against a proposed administration rule that could effectively bar executive branch employees from attending trade association meetings and widely attended events.

“To discriminate against trade associations because they lobby is not fair,” said John Graham, ASAE’s president and CEO. “Matt was very helpful in helping us make that point.” Shay helped generate more than 500 signatures for an ASAE letter on the matter and was instrumental in getting about 300 associations to write their own comments, Graham added. The administration has not issued a final rule on the matter.

As for Shay’s work at the retail group, Graham said it’s as if he woke a “kind of sleeping giant” when he joined.

“Before he got there, they were not very assertive and active in the public policy arena,” Graham said. “He has gone over there and really ramped up their communications efforts and ramped up their profile and their government relations activity.”

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