All Articles Leadership Management Spotlight on Association Leadership: CEO of the National Confectioners Association

Spotlight on Association Leadership: CEO of the National Confectioners Association

5 min read


Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association since 1992, provides leadership for members, including U.S. and international confectionery manufacturers and suppliers, to meet complex challenges and problems that have confronted the industry. Graham founded the World Cocoa Foundation, a nonprofit farmer-outreach organization, in 2000. Before joining the candy industry, Graham served in executive posts at the Uniform and Textile Services Association, the National Food Processors Association and the American Hotel and Motel Association.

What is your leadership philosophy?

Leadership in a nonprofit has to be different from if I were an entrepreneur or even a CEO of a small business, although I realize there are some skills that apply to both. The first and, to me, the most important thing is that I have to be an example. If employees realize that I take the job seriously, that this is not some career stopover for me, that I am dedicated to and part of the industry we represent, that I am passionate about our successes, that I don’t ask them to do anything I don’t do myself, then this sets the tone. I once worked for a guy who ran down the hall and high-fived anybody he ran into when we got a new member. That’s great because it was sincere and it was infectious. I work as many hours as anyone, if not more. Other than salary and one or two perks, I try to spread the wealth and as many perks as possible. If I have a nice office and get parking, so should everyone (as much as possible). Employees need to see a sense of fairness and proportion.

When was the first time you were someone’s boss?

At a summer camp, I was in charge of 50 6-year-old boys and had four assistants, but I won’t count that. In Vietnam, during the war, I worked in a refugee camp, and I was partly in charge of distributing money, rice, etc. But in terms of an actual office job, I went from being a lawyer representing the hotel industry in Washington to becoming, almost overnight, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association and having 40 or 50 people reporting to me. It was a little tough at first, but using the above philosophy and working closely with the president, it worked out.

How do you decide whether someone is right for your team?

By the time we narrow down the list of people to interview, their backgrounds and qualifications are pretty similar, so I look for personality, creativity, some sign of risk taking or adventure in their backgrounds (harder for kids to do this today). I ask about family and hobbies and interests. All of these things are usually a good road map for how they will approach their job. I try to read between the lines about how they approached their previous jobs. For me, it’s more intuitive than scientific (I know some companies have personality tests), and you get better at it over time.

What is the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year?

The confectionery industry has many challenges. The U.S. congressionally mandated Sugar Program really hurts our industry, and changing that is a major uphill battle, but we’re giving it our all. Also, how candy and chocolate and snacks in general fit into a good diet is a long-term issue. Consumers receive an enormous amount of nutrition information, and we want to be sure that good science rules the day. There is a place for a little sweetness in one’s diet, and it is NCA’s role to be sure that consumers, nutritionists and opinion leaders have accurate information.

What is the biggest challenge your association is facing?

Providing value to all 700 members is always a challenge. We have big companies and small companies, we have suppliers, brokers and international members, and keeping focused on the big things facing us while not ignoring some specific needs of some of our specific member categories is a full-time job. Also, like most associations, sometimes, as a staff, we’re ahead of our members and sometimes we’re behind, so hitting that partnership sweet spot is always hard work. Our membership is growing, our trade show is growing, political involvement by our members is growing, so that is all good.

Looking outside Washington, whose work do you admire most?

While we have some excellent large players in our industry, I have lately visited many small candy companies, and I admire those CEOs and their staffs for how hard they work every day. They are dealing with retailers, volatile commodity prices, training and maintaining their workforce, fierce competition and more. They need to constantly innovate and creatively market and be ahead of trends and changing tastes. While there is fun and pride in being a candy manufacturer, it’s not an easy job to keep the company going from generation to generation, as many have done.

If a recent college grad came to you and said they one day wanted your job, what advice would you give the person?

First of all, you have to like candy, chocolate and gum! Few people have a straight line to a specific job, so I would advise to have an advanced degree (you learn a little, and it impresses those who do the hiring) but, more importantly, get some good work experience — and don’t stay too long in the first jobs you have (harder to do today). Oscar Wilde said that experience is the sum total of all of the mistakes you have made, so the more experience you have, the better you should be. Every job should be treated seriously, and nothing should ever be beneath you.