One-on-One with Larry Graham
Former NCA president reflects on the past and the present as the association’s longest reigning “candy man.”
His last day was May 30, 2014. For 22 years, Larry Graham has been the voice, face and persona of America’s confectionery industry. And yet, the always dapper-looking president of the National Confectioners Association didn’t start out to be America’s de facto “candy man.”
The Boston University Law School graduate actually began his career working for the government. He spent two years with the Agency of International Development (AID) in South Vietnam,` working in refugee camps and rebuilding towns in Quang Tri Province. Upon his return to the States, he decided to join the Wall Street firm of Beekman & Bogue. In 1972, he moved to Washington to become chief administrative and legislative aide to U.S. Congressman Clarence Brown.
Still, there was nary a thought about holding down what many consider one of the sweetest executive posts a person could want.
It was in Washington, D.C. that Graham honed his political and lobbying skills, working for Congressman Brown as well as a serving as counsel for the House of Representatives’ Government Operations Committee. The highly charged life of a congressional lawyer took a different turn, however, when he was approached by the American Hotel-Motel Association, which was looking for legal counsel and a lobbyist.
As Graham told ABC News’ Matt Negrin in an interview two years ago, he wasn’t exactly sure what a trade association was back then. But he quickly found out. And that changed his career.
In 1982, he became executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association, moving on to become president of the Uniform & Textile Service Association in 1990.
But it wasn’t until Dick O’Connell, then retiring president of the NCA, talked to Graham in 1992 that the former Franklin & Marshall College football and baseball team captain found his true calling. As the Candy Hall of Fame executive wrote in his biography, “I knew it had to be a strong organization as it has been around since 1884, and candy is a great product to represent in Washington.”
And although Graham hasn’t been around as long as the association, he has made the record books as its longest serving president.
So why now?
“I’m not getting younger,” he says straightforwardly. Graham goes on to explain that the decision stemmed from a conversation he had with Mitchell Goetze, president of Goetze’s Candy Co. and Bob Simpson, president of Jelly Belly Candy Co., two years ago. At that time, Goetze and Simpson, both of whom were chairman and vice chairman of the NCA respectively, were leading a long-range strategic plan for the association. As a result, they realized that there needed to be a succession plan for Graham’s eventual retirement.
“And I agreed,” Graham says. “We picked a date, which was at the end of the Sweets & Snacks Expo in 2014.”
That doesn’t mean the former NCA president is completely walking away from the association; he plans to lend a hand to incoming president John Downs and also looks forward to being involved in some special projects.
“I’ll be working with the NCA as a consultant, helping John get off the ground,” he says. “I’ll also be working with Alison Bodor in trying to establish a Candy Museum in D.C. And I look to work with Sara Clair, chairperson of the Confectionery Foundation, in expanding that program.”
But first things first — like preparing for a bike trip to Italy with daughter and actress Lauren this summer. Then there are spinning classes he’s looking to teach; an accomplish cyclist, Graham is a certified spinning instructor. And he’s looking forward to taking a few more trips to the family home in Maine.
|Larry Graham with his daughter, Actress Lauren Graham.|
So, what does Graham believe were his greatest accomplishments at the NCA?
“I’d have to say No. 1 is the Sweets & Snacks Expo, seeing its growth and success during the past 18 years,” he says. “You realize it never was intended to be a profit-making endeavor; we just wanted to break even and provide a connection for our members with the buying community.”
Graham goes on to point out that one of the challenges the new NCA president will have to contend with involves the consequences of that success.
“We have more than 100 companies on our waiting list,” he points out. “The challenge is how and where do we grow at McCormick Place?”
Graham also cites the creation of the World Cocoa Foundation as another milestone he’s proud of during his tenure at the NCA. “The organization has done well,” he says, addressing some of the most contentious issues affecting the cocoa and chocolate industries.
And what about any disappointments?
“I’d have to say that the establishment of a Candy Museum in D.C., and the fact that we’re not further along with that.” Graham responds. “Also, I would have liked to have seen our health and wellness campaign to its successful conclusion, which aims at giving retailers and consumers permission to include confections in their diet. The association continues to have plenty of initiatives on that front.”
Dare we mention that darn sugar program?
“We were just four votes short in the Senate, and 11 short in the House,” he says. “We were close. Keep in mind that one of the strongest lobbies in Washington is the sugar lobby. They have a single focus and they’re extremely focused.”
Ironically, Graham goes on to point out that the NCA is working with the Sugar Association in trying to stop the demonization of sugar, a movement that doesn’t do the confectionery industry any good.
“We’d like to see them doing more on that end; after all, sugar is a natural product,” he adds.
Graham’s also encouraged by the way the NCA board embraced front-of-pack labeling.
“We have a large board, 40 members,” he says. “And, as you know, no one likes to change labels. But by accepting front-of-pack labeling, we’re showing that as an association, as an industry, we’re acting responsibly. Confections do not contribute to the obesity crisis here in the United States; they account for only 2 percent of the total daily caloric intake.”
And finally, what about giving up one of the sweetest executive jobs on the planet?
“You have to remember that being president of an association is not like being an executive of a corporation,” he says. “You rely tremendously on your staff and your members. It is a team effort.”
Graham acknowledges that much of his and the association’s success during the past 22 years has come about as a result of staff expertise as well as member engagement.
“Just look at our committees and the board,” he says. “Tim Quinn of Mars gets really excited about the Sweets & Snacks Expo as the chairman of the show. And Dave Fleischer from Promotion in Motion is intimately involved as chairman of the State of the Industry conference.”
So after 22 years, what’s the one thing about the “candy man” that most people don’t know?
“Well, I speak Vietnamese,” he says. “I had to learn it before leaving for Vietnam for AID. As you know it’s a tonal language. So, depending upon how you say a certain word, it can have three or four meanings. So when I was in Vietnam in the late 1960s, I happen to be looking for my socks. And I told the maid that I couldn’t find my socks. Well, she looked at me puzzled. Seems I said I can’t find my wife. And she knew that my wife wasn’t with me; she was living in Japan.””
No doubt, many of us will still be looking for Graham during the coming months even though we know he’s not there anymore either.
Nonetheless, enjoy your retirement, Larry.