10 Questions With ... Larry Graham

The candy man talks about the sweeter things in Washington.

April 4, 2012 -- Remember when you were 5, and you told your parents you wanted to work in a candy store when you grow up?

At the National Confectioners Association, every day is like clocking in to work at a sugar-coated emporium. Wrapped chocolates, gumballs, Pez dispensers and sour gummies are littered throughout the Georgetown office space so that it looks like the Easter bunny's bedroom after a trick-or-treating spree.

But the NCA and its president, Larry Graham, don't just sit around all day eating bon bons, even during one of the biggest candy-selling weeks of the year.

Although, to be clear, they do eat candy. And lots of it. The group represents candy makers large and small who are grappling with issues like the price of sugar, and who need a lobby to represent their interests in Washington. It's a tough job, but somebody's got to chew it.

We sat down with Graham to find out what goes on at one of Washington's most colorful lobbies -- and what he thinks about Michelle Obama's anti-obesity campaign. We also asked him which candies best represent some notable politicians.

Tell us about your background and how it led you to this sweet job. Once upon a time ...

I was, like, eating a Snicker's bar in high school – no. I'm probably a little bit of a kind of typical trade association person in D.C. I started as a lawyer on Wall Street, New York, and then I came down here, and eventually I was the chief of staff to a congressman from Ohio, Congressman Bud Brown. He's retired now. His dad was a congressman for 25 years before him.

Then I was a counsel, legal counsel, to a committee in the House of Representatives. Back then it was called the House Government Operations Committee. I think it's got a different name now. And then a guy came to me once and said the American Hotel-Motel Association, which was based in New York, was looking for somebody in D.C. to represent them, both legally and with some lobbying, because they had a lot of tax issues and labor issues. And I said, "What's a trade association?"

That started me. I accepted that job and that started me in the association business. I won't go into all the details, but then I got a job with the National Food Processors Association, which is all big food companies that put food into a package, like Campbell's Soup and Gerber and Heinz. So that got me into the food side. And then basically I was recruited for this job, and, you know, it sounded pretty good. It was candy. Back then it was in Virginia, so close to where I lived, and it was a good product, and so that's how I got here.

Easter's coming up. What does your Easter look like?

The interesting thing about candy is it has seasons, and it's connected with some of our major holidays. So, Halloween, Easter, Christmas and Valentine would be our four biggest holidays. You know, Halloween probably being biggest. I think Easter is second. Each season sort of has its own traditional product. So Easter's going to be chocolate bunnies and jelly beans and chocolate eggs and that sort of thing. So we generally have a function here at the office, and we invite the media or people from the Hill or whoever. We're not doing it this time because we're undergoing some construction here, our conference room.

It's a big important holiday for us. It's significant for us and I think that's where candy still plays a kind of traditional role in what people eat and the times of the year and all that.

I love marshmallow. So I'll probably be eating some Peeps. Since I've been in this job, I've really developed much more of a taste for dark chocolate, which I didn't know that much about until I came into the industry. So I'll certainly be having some chocolate. I love all the gourmet jelly beans that are out there now. Jelly Belly and other major companies are making these.

The maybe, perhaps, unfortunate thing is I'm kind of known in my neighborhood about my job, so people want to come over to my house and get some free candy. Or come here to the office. We have chocolate. We have a lot of chocolate in my house. There's a lot of innovative things.

I like all of the artisan chocolates now that are coming out. Particularly the dark chocolates. They're pretty good. I think all of our members now are kind of fitting their products into the season, so they're making their candy bars in the shape of bunnies, and that sort of thing, so we're probably seeing more of that. I think what keeps all the small guys alive in our industry is they all find their niche. We say that every year there's over 2,000 new candy products. Now, new could be a different package, an extension of a brand, some sort of new flavor, so it could be a similar product, and not all of those succeed.

We have this big trade show in Chicago in May, and we have over 500 exhibitors there. So what the retailers are always looking for, and customers, consumers, too, they're looking for a new product, and innovative products. And plus with so many manufacturers in it, there's a lot of competition to come up with something new.

If your job is so fun, do you ever feel as if you're actually working?

One of the things we do, of course, is, we lobby. And I think every place we go, a congressional office or even an agency, people are kind of intrigued and happy to see us. It feels nice and I think it adds to the job to be representing a product that people love and makes people happy.

The other thing I feel like we're protecting is, there's so many small businesses in our industry. So we feel like we're protecting an important part of American life, and we're protecting small business, and I think what we're saying, a taste of happiness, a part of our tagline — it's a fun job.

I remember once, I was doing an interview for CNN or something. It was here in town, and I was in the waiting room. And there was John Bolton, who was the former guy for the U.N. for us, and then there was, I think, a general from the White House. And they were talking to each other, and one said to the other, "What are you talking about?" And one guy said, "Afghanistan." And then the other guy said to the other person, "What are you talking about?" He said, "Iraq." And then they looked at me and said, "What are you talking about?" And I said, "Halloween." Which was true, because what CNN was doing, they were looking at, what are some indices of how the economy is doing. So are we up or are we down?

And that's the other interesting thing about candy. We're an affordable treat, a small indulgence. So we don't go way up, and we don't go way down. The amazing thing I see about our trade show is, every year we have 40 or 50 new companies. Some leave, some come back. So it's still an industry in which a lot of entrepreneurs are trying to get into it. It's a fairly stable industry. I think the hard part is getting something distinctive and innovative.

When you lobby up on Capitol Hill, do you bring the candy with you?

Yeah. I mean, there's all kinds of ethic rules, but I think we can do it if it's under 10 dollars — and it's also immediately consumable. We used to have a massive party on Capitol Hill called Hilloween, and we did it around Halloween, but the ethics rules made it more complicated for us to do that because we gave away free candy. The bag of candy was, I don't know, maybe worth $10 or something like that. The other reason we had to stop it is, we had thousands of people on line, and we couldn't, no matter how much candy, we did this year after year, no matter how much candy we had, we never had enough.

Time to get serious. What are the big issues for the industry, and is there a war on sugar?

There's two things on sugar that concern us. One is the U.S. government's sugar program. Our members end up paying double the world price for sugar because of the congressionally mandated sugar program, which prevents sugar from coming into the United States. It also protects the domestic sugar growers and it makes sure there's a floor on the price, so that concerns our guys, and we are lobbying to get rid of that. We feel our guys have to compete around the world. We think the sugar growers should have to compete.

We're not against the sugar growers. We need sugar and we need in America the best of sugar, but we just feel they should be in a free market.

The other issue on sugar is, "sugar — bad for you," and that sort of thing. There's no science that there's anything toxic or anything like that about sugar except like any food, too much of it is not good for you. We feel that sugar gets a bad rap. It's not the food ingredients. It's the dose. So if you have reasonable amounts of sugar or reasonable amounts of candy, it's fine. It's going to be fine in your diet. We have a concern about that, that it's just wrong and inaccurate information out there.

The whole diet and health issue is important to our industry. There is childhood obesity in this country. We believe that the science shows we're not causing that. We don't have anything to do with that. our products are 2.8 percent of the calories in an adolescent's diet, and those are government figures, so we feel you can have a little bit of sweetness in your diet, in moderation, and you can enjoy Easter and Halloween. So we're battling some of those issues.

Under one of the legislative things in the Obama administration, there's no longer candy in schools and vending in schools. We didn't fight that. We felt that was probably a losing battle. And, secondly, what we are saying — candy should be available when parents are present and in fundraising at schools. So it seems to me you could sell it at football games and basketball games. There are parents there. And also at fundraising, and it's not kid-to-kid fundraising, it's kids trying to raise from their parents and from adults. So that is something we're trying to maintain.

We feel that we've marketed candy as a treat. It's not a meal replacement. Also, our industry — it's clear what's in our products, on the labeling. And one of the things that they've done is come up with, almost all candies are available now in small pieces. So if you want to just have a few little pieces — everything's available in pieces.

Do you butt heads with Michelle Obama and her childhood obesity campaign?

No, actually, we support her program, and actually she's been reasonable on this. She has specifically said you can have some sweets and ice cream and candy in your diet. She allows her own kids to have that. So I think the White House has been reasonable. We're participating in the Easter Egg Roll. About a dozen of our companies or so will be providing candy for that. We've worked with the White House on that.

Who's your favorite member of Congress?

We do favor the members of Congress who are against the sugar program. Senator Durbin is with us. Illinois is a big confectionary state, with many, many candy companies. Immigrants at the turn of the century came and they had bakeries and then turned them into confectionary companies. Lugar's been very good. Jeanne Shaheen.

They're supportive of small business and they're supportive of getting rid of the sugar program. We are not a heavily regulated industry in the sense of oil and gas or something. So when it comes to our issues, it really stands out when a member supports us.

Generally speaking, Republicans seem to be more favorable to business but really we're pretty nonpartisan in the sense that there's a lot of Democrats that have supported us, too.

Looking at the presidential field of candidates, which seem to be the most pro-candy, or pro-sugar?

Where do they stand on business issues? And small business in particular. I think Romney has been more outspoken about that. Our members have some concerns with what they see as an increased regulatory environment in the Obama administration. I think our guys are pretty bipartisan. The president of one candy company told me, "Both Democrats and Republicans eat my candy."

I'm independent. I don't think I voted in the primary because I was traveling.

Choose a side: Sour versus chocolate candy.

I wouldn't really put it that way of sour versus chocolate. I mean, I really like chocolate. One thing that's happening with chocolate is, it's salty in chocolate. There's caramel surrounded in chocolate and then salt on it. It's really good. And that's been — the new M&M, pretzel. Salty and sweet, I would say, rather than sour and sweet. Although I like the sour gummy bears and all that, the new flavors. I think they're good.

I like the new artisanal chocolates, many of the dark chocolates in there. I like the salty and chocolate together. I think the thing in some of the sugar candies that's changed is there's mango and there's all kinds of new flavors. I kind of like those, although I like all the traditional stuff. I think you find that what you liked as a kid, you like the whole rest of your life. I loved Milky Ways and Three Musketeers. I still like them. I love Hershey bars, Nestle Crunch. I'm big on marshmallow — I like Peeps, I like chocolate-covered marshmallow.

I tend to like the filled chocolates, something inside. My favorite would be chocolate-covered marshmallow or chocolate-covered caramel. If you get box chocolates out, I would go for the caramel and the marshmallow.

Tell us about the insider candy world — what's weird?

One year at our trade show, we had a company from China. A lot of our members are very secretive about products they want to reveal at the show, so this booth — I probably shouldn't be telling this story — but this booth had a curtained-off part of their booth, and so finally one of the members came to me and said, "You've got to stop this company from selling." And apparently these were sort of off-color chocolate novelties — exotic, loosely speaking.

So we realized we didn't have a rule against those kind of. ... We let them continue the show, but we asked them not to display — which they weren't anyway, they were hiding it — that product when they came back the next year, and they didn't do it. There's a lot of really weird — I'm not even going to get into it — disgusting flavors and stuff that are out there.

There was one that was a plastic moose that was called "Moose Poop." You hit him in the head, and, you know, it's chocolate, really. But kids like that kind of stuff.

Do you have a favorite gift you like to give?

One thing we did, which was pretty popular, is a year's supply of chocolate. So, every month you get a delivery, and we would orchestrate it from one of our companies. We auctioned that off. One of our charities is Children's Inn at National Institutes of Health. It's a place where families stay when they're visiting their kids who have — it's a pediatric AIDS and cancer ward. We've always liked supporting that charity. We send the kids candy on various holidays. I went to an auction there and auctioned off a year's supply of chocolate.

With so much variety in sweets, everybody's personality must be a little bit like some sort of candy. So what would President Obama be if he were a candy?

He likes arugula and stuff, he'd probably be a gourmet jelly bean, and he'd probably like a mango.

What about Mitt Romney?Mitt is serious, right? He's the uber-American. He'd probably go for the traditional Hershey bar or Milky Way. It's traditional, it's been around forever.

Hillary Clinton?Sophisticated. Probably boxed chocolate. It's sort of the intelligent choice for the sophisticated consumer.

Sarah Palin?How about Red Hots?

Newt Gingrich?He might like the Peeps. Peeps are the kind of outlier in our industry. Who would have thought of creating a marshmallow like a chicken? It's kind of off the wall, which Newt can be.

Wolf Blitzer?I think Wolf must be northern European in ancestry. I would think the Gummy Bears, which really started in Europe, and have a lot of different flavors, too.

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