Lang says her successor at D.C. Chamber will be challenged by working with city legislators

September 21, 2013

It wasn’t a coincidence that Barbara Lang announced her plan to step down as chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce just two days after the D.C. Council failed to override a mayoral veto of a bill that would have imposed a “super-minimum wage” on mega-retailers such as Wal-Mart.

“For me, the time to leave is when things are going really well,” Lang said.

Lang played a key role in rallying opposition to the Large Retailer Accountability Act, and she said its defeat is one of her proudest accomplishments in her 11 years leading the chamber.

“She’s a great convener and facilitator,” said Anthony A. Williams, who has worked with Lang both as a former District mayor and current chief executive of Federal City Council. “She gave a great face to the organization.”

Under Lang’s leadership, the chamber has grown to include more than 1,700 members. She has shaped the organization into a more powerful advocate for the interests of District businesses.

“When I got here, we were a non-player. Nobody came to us for anything,” Lang said. “And now we are considered the major player.”

Part of the reason the Chamber had not been especially influential was because the Greater Washington Board of Trade had handled much of the lobbying for businesses in the District.

“I kind of came and said, ‘That’s not acceptable,’ ” Lang said.

Now, she and Board of Trade President James C. Dinegar work together, with his group taking the lead on broader regional issues, and the Chamber spearheading plans for issues that are District-specific.

In the past, the Chamber mostly represented small, homegrown businesses, and the Board of Trade frequently represented larger firms. Today, the organizations share many interests and members. Lang said about one-third of the Chamber’s members are also members of the Board of Trade.

“There is often an assumption that there is tension between our two groups,” Dinegar said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth. In her time at the Chamber, Barbara has been a true collaborator with the Board of Trade, and I am fortunate that we have been on the same team on so many key issues.”

Search for successor

The Chamber is ramping up its search for Lang’s successor, a process that it hopes to complete in six to nine months.

Lang said the new leader’s biggest challenge is going to be building relationships with the D.C. Council, which she said is often driven by “emotion, rather than fact.”

“I always knew that we had five votes and I had to go work for two,” she said about when she took the helm. “Today, if I’ve got one or two votes, I’m lucky. And I have to go work for the others.”

Another issue might be to improve the workforce development efforts in the District. Lang said the group did not make as much progress in that area as she would have liked.

“I don’t know that as a city we’ve gotten the right formula yet for how to go about this in a very holistic way,” she said.

Lang, who is in her late 60s, said she’s “not the type to retire,” and she is beginning to consider what her next step might be.

“Do I want to go run something again? Perhaps. Do I want to consult? Not sure,” Lang said.

One thing she’s not considering, she said, is politics.

“I will not do that. I am not looking for any job on the council,” Lang said. “My attention span in looking at pieces of legislation, it’s boring to me. I need to be moving in action.”

Prior to working at the Chamber, Lang was an executive at the District-based mortgage finance firm Fannie Mae and at technology titan IBM.

Sarah Halzack is The Washington Post's national retail reporter. She has previously covered the local job market and the business of talent and hiring. She has also served as a Web producer for business and economic news.
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