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Association Bisnow
July 9, 2008

The Candyman


Larry Graham, President of the National Confectioners Association, has just one little problem with his annual trade show: it's too popular. Most associations couldn't dream of such a headache, but then they don't have all kinds of candy on offer, either. Larry says that a few of the 15,000 attendees at the NCA's annual "All Candy Expo" aren't in the industry at all, but just people looking to sample the offerings from the association's 400 manufacturers and 200 suppliers. But, hey, who doesn't love it? Just look at the enthusiasm Larry showed when we visited him the other day in his Vienna office.


Larry introduced the trade show to the 125-year-old association 12 years ago, his fourth year on the job. Held at Chicago's McCormick Place in May or June, it now accounts for more than a third of NCA revenue and offers a chance for members (700 total, including 100 retail brokers) to show their wares to buyers from WalMart, CVS, and small outlets. The products get more innovative every year—like the Pop Rocks chocolate bar, chewable Lemon Heads, and an energy lollipop with ginseng and guarana we spied in Larry's office. To make sure attendees are legitimate buyers and not just off the street looking for a Halloween in spring, the NCA started charging a $35 fee. Modest but effective: "It's pretty hard to carry $35-worth of candy," Larry says.


NCA members (including Hershey, Nestle, Cadbury, Wrigley, and Mars) are in the candy business, but to make the expo more attractive to purchasers, the NCA opened the show to snack-makers—think potato chips—two years ago. With a staff of 25 and a $10 million budget, the NCA oversees one of the few industries that does well in recessionary times. "Candy is a inexpensive indulgence," Larry says.


Thee welcoming entrance to NCA's office looked a bit like a movie theater to us, or maybe we just had Hollywood on our mind—Larry's daughter is Lauren Graham, star of the long-running Gilmore Girls TV series. Larry never went the acting route himself; after getting a law degree at Boston U, he did time at a Wall Street firm before coming down to DC "temporarily" to act as counsel for a House of Representatives committee. He held positions at the American Hotel and Motel Association and three other trade groups before sticking for good (hmm, we're reminded of candy again) at the NCA.

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