After 22 years as president of the National Confectioners Association, Larry Graham is retiring. He is the longest serving president in the 131-year history of the Association, which during his tenure has experienced a considerable transformation. Membership has grown from about 100 manufacturers and 100 suppliers to more than 650 member companies, and now includes manufacturers, candy marketers, suppliers to the industry, international members and brokers.
Under Graham’s leadership, the NCA has nearly doubled its staff and tripled its budget. He was instrumental in the founding of what is now the World Cocoa Foundation and the NCA’s Confectionery Foundation. He spearheaded the launch of the Sweets & Snacks Expo and established the NCA’s presence at ISM, in Cologne, and other international trade shows.
A facilitative leader, Graham initiated an exchange of information with confectionery trade groups around the world through the International Confectionery Association (ICA). Seeing a need to better accommodate the Association’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, he oversaw relocation of the NCA offices to Washington, DC. He also was a driving force in the launch of Candy & Snack TODAY.
Graham, who steps down this summer, will remain with the NCA in a consultative capacity.
Candy & Snack TODAY: Why are you retiring now?
Graham: I’m approaching 70 . . . okay, I’m just past 70. I’ve been here a long time and the officers kept asking what my plans were. They felt it prudent, and I agreed, that we have a planned succession.
This is the longest job I have ever had and, honestly, as much as I’m enjoying it and the industry, it’s time to go. Also, it would be bad form to croak in the middle of the Expo or State of the Industry Conference.
Candy & Snack TODAY: There have been a lot of changes in the NCA in the past 20 years. How did it all come about?
Graham: The engine for most of this change is, of course, the Expo. It has provided us with the resources to grow, and it put us on the map with retailers and the media. I didn’t initiate the idea for the Expo — that was being talked about before I got here. As you remember, there was much unhappiness with the two AWMA shows that existed then.
There are many fathers of the Expo, but Jim Gagliarducci, former president of Sunmark, was the strongest proponent. We didn’t start the Expo to make a profit, and that still is not our top goal; we started it to provide an effective and efficient forum for buyers and sellers to come together, celebrate the variety and creativity of the industry and help it grow.
Candy & Snack TODAY: Do you think associations, especially the NCA, are as important now as they were 20 years ago?
Graham: Associations exist because we can accomplish more as a group than any one company can do alone. There are more than 2,000 associations just in DC, and for the most part they are more important than ever. Years ago our industry faced a limited number of issues, and NCA activities centered around social-type meetings among members who were loyal to us because their families had been members. Now companies join primarily for business reasons and demand more return on their investment — and rightly so.
Today, our work is more complicated than ever and while Capitol Hill is important, we have to contend with much broader issues. In addition to legislators in Washington and at the state level, we are interacting with the media, consumer groups, retailers, nutritionists, dietitians, shoppers and more. But we have a good, supportable story to tell; we’re two percent of the calories in an adult’s diet and we’re only six percent of added sugars in the diet. We’re a treat, a small indulgence, and we’re part of culture and traditions in that we play a key role in celebrations for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Easter.
Candy & Snack TODAY: How do you think we should be approaching the issues facing the industry?
Graham: With the help of our members’ advice and counsel, I think the direction we are going in is the right one. Our message needs to be factual, it needs to be relentless, it needs to be based in science, it needs to promote the fun and joy of candy, and it needs to be told and shared through all forms of digital as well as traditional media. You start with the research and then you put the plan in place.
The science is on our side. Ultimately, however, it can’t just be the Association getting this message out; it has to be coming from all of our 650 members as well.
We have many aspects to these plans and programs: educating retailers on candy, nutrition and diet, and promoting peer-reviewed studies on confections in the diet. We need to deal with the ongoing demonization of sugar and other sweeteners, partnering with other food associations and manufacturing groups that represent the ingredients in question. We have been building on this for the past several years and the efforts are ratcheted up every year.
Candy & Snack TODAY: One thing we hear discussed is your management style, the culture you’ve created. What is all that about?
Graham: If I have a management style, I learned it from my dad, who was a successful small businessman. He had a light touch with employees once he hired them and determined they were good. He let people do their jobs, made it fun and didn’t take credit for work they had done.
Managing an association is different from managing a for-profit company. People might say association management is not the same as being a real CEO — that we just follow the lead of the Board. I don’t think that’s true. I have, in effect, 650 bosses and a large Board, so I have to be a broker of their good ideas, as well as my own. I have to have a continuing conversation with staff and our volunteer members about direction and priorities, and in the long run I have to make the final decisions that move things forward.
In developing our strategic plan, our staff had strong member involvement right from the beginning — by design. I’ve been lucky; I inherited a strong Association 22 years ago, I have a great staff and I’ve had 11 great chairmen who were my link to the industry.
Candy & Snack TODAY: You’re in your final weeks as president. Any last-minute thoughts?
Graham: The goodbyes have just been wonderful. Almost all of our previous chairmen attended the State of the Industry Conference this past March, and it was great seeing them; it has me thinking about how we can keep them all involved in the industry.
I keep quoting the line in Steve Jobs’ biography, where he said: “The journey is the
reward” when it came to his job. I never looked forward to the end, but I did look forward to working in this great industry every day, and that is satisfying. I work with great people: Barbara, Libby, Ali, Susan, Susan, Larry, Tracy, and Liz, just to mention all the VPs. And of course, Erin O’Malley-Garcia — who has been here 26 years — and the entire staff of hardworking, dedicated, wonderful people. CST