Savoring the Sweetest Job in Washington

Posted December 18, 2009 at 4:51pm

Larry Graham has the kind of job every trade association leader wants.

When he shows up for meetings, public officials are genuinely happy to see him. His members are known for helping each other out, instead of undermining competitors. In 2009 attendance at his annual gathering rose slightly, despite the lagging economy, and his small lobby shop is growing.

Graham has served as president of the National Confectioners Association since 1992, recently becoming the group’s longest-serving president. Around the holidays he becomes especially popular: Christmas is the third-biggest holiday for confectioners, behind Halloween and Easter but ahead of Valentine’s Day. On Halloween, the line of revelers eager for free candy stretches from his front door around the block. Even Congressional aides can’t resist his charm.

“We know that there’s now a lot more ethics rules, but still if we’re in a meeting with people — a serious meeting talking about serious issues — we bring examples of what we’re talking about, and people often ask us to leave those examples so they can study them further,— he explained, laughing.

Graham’s background as an attorney who had experience working in the House of Representatives and at other trade associations proved to be sweet for the groups that made up the NCA in the early 1990s. Dick O’Connell, who served as the group’s president from 1982 to 1992, offered five potential names and said the group chose Graham over the others because he had recently gained leadership experience as president of the Uniform and Textile Service Association.

“When it came down to stature and experience, he had been both very active in legislative and regulatory work, and he had been experienced as a chief executive officer,— O’Connell recalled.

Yet Graham’s job is quite different from what O’Connell did. While much of O’Connell’s job dealt with going between separate entities (such as the Chocolate Manufacturers Council and the American Cocoa Research Institute) representing parts of the industry, under Graham those groups have consolidated. He works on behalf of about 400 member companies, some as large as the Hershey Co., Just Born and Jelly Belly Candy Co., with a staff of 21. His days often last from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., including meetings with members, public officials and leaders of other trade associations.

Many of the concerns are the same, though: Agricultural issues, food safety legislation and trade agreements, especially those that affect the price of sugar, are high on the NCA’s priority list. The Food and Drug Administration’s update of dietary guidelines is also a concern. A longtime registered lobbyist, Graham also has a lobbyist on staff and expects to hire two more soon.

Graham works closely with Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, particularly on a gathering they hold for retailers in Chicago each May. Graham’s group founded the All Candy Expo in 1997. When research showed that buyers for the large retail stores often handled both candy and snacks, they invited McCarthy’s members to exhibit, and next year it will be called the Sweets & Snacks Expo. They also partner on policy issues.

“We’ve opposed these candy and snack taxes across the country, and that’s where Larry and I first started working together, really, about 18 years ago.— McCarthy said, adding that they worked to repeal those taxes in California, Maine, Maryland and D.C.

The Chicago event was one of the highlights of 2009 for the NCA, but it wasn’t the only one. In February, staffers moved its headquarters from Tysons Corner, Va., to its current candy-themed home in Georgetown, and in September it launched a bimonthly magazine for members and retailers called Candy & Snack TODAY.

Working in an office where colorful images of candy decorate the floor and walls, visitors receive a bag of candy on the way out and members send baskets full of holiday candy could have its disadvantages, though.

“I’ve been here 17 years, and people say, ‘You must be sick of eating candy every day,’— Graham related. “And honestly, I probably have a couple pieces of candy every day, and I haven’t put on a pound.—