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K Street Files: Steve McBee on Leaving His Shop (Updated)

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated Dec. 26, 11:40 a.m. | Steve McBee never was your typical K Street character .  

So perhaps it should not have come as a shock when the 46-year-old founder of McBee Strategic took a most unconventional career path, ditching his business to become CEO of NRG Home, a $6 billion energy concern with 5,000 employees. The move threw his 55 McBee employees into chaos and uncertainty. McBee is selling the shop that bears his name to the law firm Wiley Rein in a deal expected to close before Christmas. He says all of his ex-colleagues have been offered the opportunity to stay, remaining in their downtown D.C. suite. The owners to be Wiley Rein plan to keep the McBee brand, for now.  

“A midlife crisis,” is how McBee jokingly characterized his career move.  (“I’m actually not having a midlife crisis that I can tell,” he clarified later.)  

Although he said the decision to abandon his firm was a wrenching one, he said the opportunity with NRG was simply irresistible.  

“For me, what I really care about is climate change and sustainability,” McBee said during an interview over coffee and sparkling water inside Union Station. “I think that energy is the next big market to be disrupted.  And the reason I think this is such a powerful business opportunity is I think that NRG is the best-positioned company in the country to not only be the go-to company on the other side of that disruption but to aid in that disruption happening.”  

In his reflections about Washington McBee, dressed in designer jeans and a fitted leather jacket, also seemed tired of what he characterized as the stalemate on Capitol Hill and the lack of vision among Washington policymakers, who seem more comfortable shooting down proposals than offering ones.  

“I thought for a long time that the best way to make a difference in that area was through the policy process,” he said of climate change. “What’s become clear to me over the last maybe three years or so is ... not one of the world’s big problems [is] going to be solved by the government any time soon, not in Washington and not by a coalition of governments. I think it’s a failure of leadership because it’s one of the world’s most important, most challenging, most existential problems and it should be the domain of government and of the policy-making process.”  

His new job with NRG Home is likely to take him across the country to San Francisco where the company, a unit of NRG Energy, is based.  

Just how McBee got on NRG’s radar is itself an interesting tale.  

Last year, he attended a dinner in Los Angeles hosted by one of his former clients, the X Prize Foundation, whose mission is to bring “radical breakthroughs” through competitions for the public good.  

He sat next to David Crane, NRG Energy’s president and CEO since 2003.  

“We believed a lot of the same things, and we saw the world in very similar ways,” said McBee, who later signed NRG as a client.  

McBee said he was helping by acting as a consultant in the CEO search for NRG Home when he pulled something of a Dick Cheney move; NRG Renew CEO Tom Doyle put McBee's name in the mix during a crowd-sourcing search. (Cheney, of course, was tasked with finding George W. Bush a vice presidential candidate, only to forward his own name to the then-Texas governor.)  

“I was haunted by the idea that I had to do it,” McBee said. “If I were going to in a nutshell tell you why was this, on the one hand, such a wrenching and difficult decision to leave the company that I had birthed and grown and loved but on the [other] hand why was it such a simple decision is because I couldn’t think of a better opportunity where the success of the business was totally correlated with the social change that you could produce. The better the business does, the more we change the world.”  

Still, McBee says he’s excited about what’s happening at his 12-year-old firm, where lobbying revenues have dipped slightly since 2010, as has been the case with many K Street shops. He said the non-lobbying parts of the business had been thriving — and he predicts they will continue to.  

He said not being around to see the growth “was one of the reasons that made it such a hard decision. … Not seeing that through is like a hard thing to think about.”  

McBee said he cooked up the deal with Wiley Rein quickly because the two firms had already been in talks, which began in the spring, to enter into a joint venture where they would pitch clients together but maintain their independence and separate identities.  

He said most, but not all, of his McBee employees have decided to stay on under the Wiley Rein ownership.  

But will NRG remain a client of McBee? “I don’t know the answer to that question,” he said. “It’s not my decision to make.”  

Clarification Dec. 26, 11:40 a.m.: Steve McBee's role in the CEO search for NRG Home has been updated to add context.  

Related: A Lobby Shop That Goes Beyond K Street  K Street Files: Defense, Tax Aides Join McBee