Bad lobbyists are good for his business

You couldn’t really blame the Bloomberg Television staffer for the faux pas.
“Can you please go into the green room and tell your boss to go on stage?” the producer asked a 25-year-old Jeff Kimbell.
Patrick G. Ryan
Jeff Kimbell

Trouble was, Kimbell was the boss. At that tender age, he had been executive director of the Medical Device Manufacturers Association (MDMA) for two years already.

Ten years later, Kimbell relishes the story. “I showed up and wore the nicest suit I had at the time” but was still mistaken for somebody’s assistant. “I’m not sure that TV interview ever actually went on the air.”

Kimbell is the president of Jeffrey J. Kimbell & Associates, a small lobbying firm he founded in 1998 that represents companies in the medical-device, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.

His elevation from his early post-college jobs as assistants to former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to the top job at the nascent MDMA was linked to his father, John Kimbell, who had been president of the medical-technology company Baxter Health Care.

Kimbell also arrived in Washington at the same time as some notable classmates from his prep school, St. George’s School in Newport, R.I., such as future Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke and future pundit Tucker Carlson. Kimbell also remains close friends with classmate and “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush, a first cousin of President Bush.

Kimbell was interested in politics from an early age. He headed his high school’s Young Republicans, interned for Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) in college and had his first gig in Washington as an intern at for the College Republican National Committee.

Having a father in the device business and forging connections with powerful elder statesmen and ambitious up-and-comers alike don’t fully explain why a new trade association facing long odds on Capitol Hill would put its future in the hands of a young man who graduated from Southern Methodist University barely two years before.

“They took a chance on me, no question,” Kimbell says during an interview in his H Street N.W. office.

The gamble paid off well, as Kimbell tells the story.

The MDMA is composed of smaller companies and was founded to balance their interests against those of the large players in the medical-device industry. When Kimbell took the helm “under a 90-day agreement in August of 1994 at $3,000 per month,” the sector’s small fry was trying to defeat a bill that would have required device makers to pay fees to the Food and Drug Administration to get their products reviewed. The bill had the backing of the big device makers.

Kimbell’s directive from his board was as simple as it was daunting, he says: “Do anything I could possibly do to kill that bill.”

In short order, he says, he did just that, demonstrating a craftiness that continues to be respected by his peers.

Kimbell and his allies exploited the rules of the House and Senate to scuttle a bill supported by key elements of the Democratic majority and the big players in industry.

“Through some good friends and luck, we were able to create some parliamentary questions … to kill a bill which likely would have become law late that session,” Kimbell says. He won’t get into the details, to protect his friends, he says.

The parliamentary maneuver proved to be just enough. A scant three months later, the GOP shocked the nation by making staggering gains in both chambers and taking control of Congress. The bill that the MDMA opposed fell off the radar.

“Thus, the MDMA, with a staff of one and my Apple Centris 610 computer, had beaten some of the largest drug and device companies in the world. I take great pride in that,” Kimbell says.

He hasn’t lost that youthful boldness in the years since and has made it the hallmark of his firm, he says.

“We don’t have any gray hair here, and I don’t have any intent on hiring any,” Kimbell says. “We have young, aggressive, very determined, well-educated and focused people.”

He adds: “I don’t have marble in the front hallway. We don’t have pillars, or pictures of guys who’ve been dead from 70 years. ...

“We are a team that is on offense. We are a firm you hire when you want to move product.”

Kimbell says that to be a lobbyist is to be a salesman. “Let’s face it: When it comes down to it, lobbying is sales, and there’s a marketing component to it also.”

He displays the implacable confidence that is typical of salespeople and feels strongly about his approach.

“What I learned at MDMA and also through watching my father at Baxter was that it was not necessarily the large, multinational [lobbying] firms in Washington that were doing the best work,” Kimbell says.

Likewise, he says, “You don’t have to be a huge company to have success in Washington as long as you have very good people on the ground here” to lobby for you.

He’s also not a little disapproving of the way some lobbyists and lobbying firms operate.

“I see lobbyists every day … that really shouldn’t even be in this business,” he says. “There is a good percentage of people in Washington that are registered — or, frankly, unregistered — lobbyists who practice what I call ‘legislative fraud.’

“They don’t know the committees, they don’t know the jurisdiction of the committees, they don’t know the members, they don’t know the staff and, fundamentally, they don’t know the policy that they’re selling on behalf of their clients.”

As Kimbell sees it, bad lobbyists are good for his business. “We picked up clients in the last year because they were represented very poorly by large firms who didn’t have the subject-matter expertise but claimed they did initially, or by small firms who didn’t have the capacity,” he says.

Wall Street has proved a treasure trove of clients, too. Private equity firms and other small investment groups, which have big stakes in emerging medical-technology companies, refer those firms to him, Kimbell says. “We definitely get a lot of clients from Wall Street investors who want to make sure that Washington is covered.”

He says he learned from the beginning at the MDMA that an effective lobbyist had to know about the business side of the issues, not just the political side.

“For any association executive, I think they all should do that. Unfortunately, I think, many of them don’t. They don’t really understand the business that they’re representing.”

Kimbell clearly takes his work seriously, but he’s better known in some circles for his busy social life.

“If you work in Washington, you can probably use a drink once in a while,” he says.

The president of the City Tavern Club and former president of the Capital Club, he is frequently on the scene at swanky Washington parties. He’s also turned his recreation into business opportunities.

He runs Magnum Entertainment, an event-planning company he founded with friends. “Magnum is really just a formalization of what we’ve been doing for a long time,” he says.

Some of the events are related to politics, such as parties they hosted in New York to coincide with the 2004 Republican National Convention. Others are not, such as the afterparties for the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants. Kimbell also sat as a judge.

Kimbell has a second sideline in real estate. His Jackalope Real Estate company owns a house in Park City, Utah, that makes a pretty penny during the nearby Sundance Film Festival. He also rents out his former home in Georgetown to the New Zealand Embassy, “courtesy of our friends at Craigslist,” the free, bare-bones classified-advertising website, he says.

An avid golfer, skier, fly-fisherman and hunter, Kimbell says he took to Utah the first time he golfed there. “I hit a golf ball about 30 percent further than I’ve ever hit one in my life,” he says.

He thinks he’ll probably retire in Park City. “I don’t plan on lobbying the rest of my life,” he says.