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Cornerstone builds out from K Street

Greg Nash

Cornerstone Government Affairs is in expansion mode.

The K Street player is opening new offices outside the Beltway, as it seeks to make inroads in the growing business of state and local lobbying.

A new office opening in Richmond, Va., will be the seventh for the firm, and Cornerstone is also exploring offices in three additional locations, its leaders told The Hill.

While it’s common for big law and lobby shops to have networks of state offices — and for smaller ones to have one or two regional posts — Cornerstone says its strategy is setting the firm apart.

“When you look at a multitude of issues — whether it’s funding, or policy — they might get started here [in Washington], but they’re getting implemented at the state and local level,” said John Keast, who has been with the firm since 2006 and specializes in defense work. “The bottom line here is client service. ... Clients expect, need, demand, robust client service.”

Cornerstone opened its doors in 2002 with fewer than 10 staffers and has grown to about 50 employees. Its client sheet includes blue-chip companies, such as Boeing, Nike, Microsoft, Chobani and the spirits manufacturer Beam Inc., in addition to several industry associations and municipal clients.

The firm already has offices in Baton Rouge, La.; Des Moines, Iowa; Jackson, Miss.; and Austin and Houston in Texas, and is “actively considering” opening offices in Annapolis, Md.; Frankfort, Ky.; and Atlanta over the next 12-18 months.

“Part of the vision that we had [for the firm], was that this was going to take place,” said Geoff Gonella, a president at Cornerstone. 

The firm says that strategy is more helpful than ever, now that Congress has cut back the amount of money that businesses are spending in Washington.

Cornerstone also bucked other industry trends over the years, including the merger craze that created combinations of lobbying and PR firms.

“We looked at the idea of doing public relations, advertising, grassroots and so forth — as a lot of firms around town have done — and ultimately decided not to do that,” said Camp Kaufman, the managing partner for state government relations at Cornerstone, saying that the firm wanted to keep its strength in lobbying as the focus. 

One client, for example, hired Cornerstone two years ago, solely for federal lobbying work. But at a recent meeting, the client asked Cornerstone to manage its entire state advocacy operation — proof, the firm says, that a national portfolio can be built from K Street.

Although the state offices have their own teams, each outpost is based around existing connections that lobbyists in the Washington headquarters already have in that location, which expands the firm’s reach for both state-level and federal clients. 

“Clients more and more are recognizing that, if they can’t get something done — particularly on big issues — [that they can] go do it state by state,” Kaufman said.

Having a national reach is particularly important when clients find themselves embroiled in controversies far from the nation’s capital.

“An industry sector that we work for has been under attack in D.C., but because the activists haven’t been able to get legislation done, they’ve taken their game to cities and states to do it. So, the defensive game has moved from one place to hundreds of places,” said Hunt Shipman, a former Department of Agriculture official and congressional aide. “They’re having to fight it in states and also in cities.”

The state offices also have a major upside for Cornerstone’s Washington team, as they can help their clients build relationships with lawmakers on their home turf.

“We probably have a stronger relationship with the congressional delegations in the states where we have an office,” says Gonella, “in part because of our business in the state, our work in the state, our clients in the state, our advocacy in the state.”

Cornerstone says it is projecting total revenue for 2014 of about $19.5 million, with about 20 percent coming from the state offices. And the local number is growing.

The firm also dabbles in international work, representing the South Korean Embassy and LNG Allies, a coalition of European countries that wants to open up U.S. exports of natural gas.

While no formal plans are in the works, Kaufman says that the firm has considered setting up partnerships in places like London or Brussels. 

No matter what comes next, Gonella said Cornerstone intends to stay loyal to its roots as a firm focused on teamwork.

“That’s what distinguishes us from other firms,” he said. “It has become a part of the way the firm is organized — how we compensate people, how we service clients, how we market ourselves, how we brand ourselves, is all centered on that.”