Executive Interview: Q&A with John Gay

When John Gay was hired as Executive Director / CEO of the Natural Products Association last November, people breathed a big sigh of relief upon hearing about his extensive experience on Capitol Hill. His predecessor was a hard act to follow in that regard, but in case you haven’t been paying attention, NPA is continuing to be extremely effective in working with Congress on our behalf. And John’s experience with coalition building will definitely come in handy in joint projects with other trade associations, and in keeping NPA’s retailer and supplier members working together. Seven months into the job, we had a few questions for him….

Q: Your work background includes a stint as a Congressional staffer and then legislative affairs positions for other trade associations. Your predecessor put a lot of emphasis on legislative affairs, and clearly challenges in that area continue. What similarities or relationships can you leverage directly from previous experience? Any new Congressional allies on the horizon?
A: Relationships are very important in Washington, whether with a Congressional office or other association. Some relationships I brought with me, and others I am developing that are specific to our industry. For example, I did not work much with Sen. Harkin’s staff over the years, so I have had to get to know them. On the other hand, I have known Sen. Hatch’s health policy advisor for over 20 years. Similarly, I did not work at all with groups such as CRN and AHPA, but now think I have good working relationships there. But it was someone from my International Franchise Association days that tipped me off that there was something in the financial reform bill that we might be interested in – that something was the provision greatly expanding FTC’s powers. You never know where you might get help from.
As for potential new Congressional allies, one arose recently. We worked well with Senator Bob Corker’s (R-TN) staff on the Senate Special Committee on Aging hearing on dietary supplements (he’s the ranking Republican on that Committee). We are following up with that office to see explore whether he would be willing to take a larger role as an industry champion.

Q: You’ve been in the NPA position for over six months now. What has struck you as a newcomer to the industry that you feel the NPA can address but has not been? What do you think the Industry needs as you sees it coming from outside?
A: One issue that needs addressing is the NPA and industry’s commitment to helping our allies in Congress stay in office. As they say, “money is the mother’s milk of politics” and the industry has not been stepping up in that regard. Industry PACs are relatively small, and the fundraisers the industry hosts for Members of Congress are few and – at times – lightly supported. The NPA PAC is no exception, and it is a goal of mine to take the time to build it up, and build it up right.

Q: What major challenges do you see facing the facing NPA?
A: Broadly speaking, the NPA – like any trade association – must continue to look at what it does and ensure that it is still delivering value to the members. Markets change, industries change, and good trade associations must be able to adapt. The good news is that our President, Pat Sardell, and our board understand that.

Q: What major challenges do you see facing the facing the industry?
A: I don’t think it is just my experience in government affairs that leads me to say that the biggest challenge is government itself. As one CEO once said, “I worry about my competitors, but it’s the government that can put me out of business.”

The one challenge right in front of us is the provision in the House financial reform bill expanding FTC powers. That gets decided in the next month or so. There is also the aftermath of the Aging Committee hearing on the GAO report, the potential for mischief on the Food Safety bill, and the ever present danger that one of our detractors in Congress will slip an anti-industry provision in a larger bill. On the regulatory side, there is an increase in activity with this new Administration that is good when it helps get the bad actors out of the industry, but is bad when it inhibits the way the good actors do business.

Q: Can you give us an update on the Coalition to Preserve DSHEA?
A: Sure, the Coalition swung into action during the challenge of the McCain bill and performed very well – on direct lobbying and in grassroots (over 36,000 communications to the Senate). More recently, the Coalition was engaged on the Aging Committee hearing, with Coalition and other industry lobbyists visiting all Committee member offices prior to the hearing to let them know our side of the story. I doubt that will be the last challenge we face this year, but we will be ready.

Q: Can you give us an update on the Natural Products Foundation?
A: Yes, it’s an exciting time for the Foundation. I think the Foundation suffered during the transition between David Seckman’s departure and my arrival and getting up to speed; but now we have a new Executive Director, Deb Knowles, who is exceptional; we have an almost entirely new board due to term limits; and a stronger relationship with the NPA itself. There is a new energy, and the Foundation is poised to do great things.

Q: The challenges to DSHEA never seem to stop, and yet, from my perspective, there are many industry members who are not members of trade association nor do they contribute to the campaigns of our allies in Congress to keep them in office. Do you think this is typical of other industries? And ideas to increase participation by industry members who benefit but don’t help fund these efforts to keep us all in business?
A: There are free riders in most industries. Usually they believe that others will handle the problems, so why spend the time or money. I think that is short-sighted. An industry that is united and engaged is much more effective in Washington. Those industry members that are not part of the effort are endangering their businesses. I think we need to do a better job communicating that to the broader industry.

Q: Is there a statement you would like to make to the industry as whole?
A: Yes, I appreciate the welcome I have received, and have been quite pleased with the willingness of so many to take the time to sit down and give me their perspectives on their businesses, the industry, and the NPA. The passion and commitment that comes through is amazing.

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