Tuesday Profile: The voice of retail

Matthew Shay has spent his first year at the National Retail Federation trying to establish the group as one of the most prominent voices for business in Washington.

Shay, the NRF’s president and CEO, said the group is considering taking on a greater role in next year’s elections, and it is doing everything it can to raise its voice on the need to create jobs. 

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NRF’s board of directors — which includes the chief executives for giant retailers including Macy’s, Saks and Neiman Marcus — has authorized a more than $10 million budget to help amplify the trade group as a player in every policy debate that affects retailers.

“The end product is to be sure that the retail industry has a seat at that table every time there’s a key policy decision taken on issues that affect our members, whatever those issues might be,” Shay said.

Already, the retailers trade group is on pace to beat its lobbying spending from last year, which is remarkable when comparing the hyperactive legislative calendar of 2010 to this year’s slower-paced Congress. The NRF has spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying in 2011 so far, about $300,000 more than the group spent in 2010, according to disclosure records.

Shay has also gone on a hiring spree to help improve the business group’s lawmaker and media outreach.

David French left the International Franchise Association (IFA) to become NRF’s senior vice president of government relations. New K Street hires have also been brought in to help with lobbying in the Senate and House.

The NRF’s press shop grew with the arrival of Tita Freeman, formerly of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Lisa Rice, who most recently led Citigroup’s political action committee, was brought in to take charge of NRF’s PAC. So far, the retailers group has given out more than $52,000 in campaign contributions this year, according to Federal Election Commission records.

“Our board has encouraged us to be very aggressive about identifying opportunities to be engaged and effective in the political process and has put everything on the table,” Shay said.

Shay said the business group has been conducting research on the retail industry’s economic impact to help sharpen its lobbying on Capitol Hill.

On Tuesday, the NRF will announce an “unprecedented” advocacy campaign that will highlight retail’s economic impact at the national, state and congressional-district level.

“That will be a game-changer in the terms of having those kinds of persuasive conversations,” Shay said.

Options of launching a new super-PAC that could spend unlimited funds and running ads targeting lawmakers in the next cycle are on the table, he suggested. 

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“I think we will be doing almost all those things. I’m sure we will be doing more research. I’m sure we will be investing more in communications and in broader campaign activities. We know we will be investing in the PAC,” Shay said.

The business group’s board of directors has approved a budget of more than $10 million to expand the NRF, Shay said. 

“Those dollars are going right to work on advocacy, communications, the kind of things that are not only going to raise visibility for just the sake of raising visibility, but they’re going to actually change outcomes and have impacts,” Shay said.

Shay’s drive to raise business’s voice has won him plaudits. 

“Retail is such a huge swath of the economy, and Matt is a proven leader who understands the importance of an effective grassroots network, an aggressive lobbying team and strategic communications to convey this sector’s positive, pro-growth messaging,” said Tom Collamore, senior vice president of communications at the Chamber.

Steve Caldeira, IFA’s president and CEO, has worked with Shay since 2002 while he was a lobbyist for several major companies and Shay was at the IFA.

“Matt is a good listener. He’s very smart and has the ability to bring people together for the good of the whole in order to move the ball down the field,” Caldeira said. “What Matt did here he seems to be doing at the NRF, which is critical to the overall success of the business community moving forward.”

Shay, 49 and married with three children, arrived at NRF last year after nearly two decades at IFA, where he ended his tenure as president and CEO. Unlike many other K Street titans, Shay has never worked on Capitol Hill.

Shay’s first lobbying job was with the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants, where he first met House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who were then climbing the ranks of Ohio state politics.

Shay said he wanted to work at a trade organization so that could have an impact on more than a single client.

“At a trade organization, at an industry group, you can actually change outcomes for hundreds of thousands of businesses, for millions of businesses, for huge swaths of the economy,” said Shay, who picked up a business degree from Georgetown University in addition to his law degree from Ohio State. 

“The truth is my attention span is too short to be a good lawyer, and in this job I don’t ever get to spend much time on any one thing,” he joked. 

One of Shay’s biggest victories in Washington was the retail industry’s successful fight to lower debit-card swipe fees. Shay said his trade group, which represents thousands of companies that have a presence in every congressional district, has found an open door with the Obama administration, citing White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley visiting the group this June.

Shay said the NRF’s top agenda is jobs and that it has worked with the administration when it can, whether it was assisting in debt-ceiling negotiations or talking to the White House’s jobs council.

“We have tried to work wherever and whenever possible with the administration, especially on job creation,” Shay said.