George W. Koch, prominent Washington lobbyist, dies at 87

George W. Koch, who led the Grocery Manufacturers of America trade association for a ­quarter-century and became one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington, died Jan. 26 at the ManorCare Health Services facility in Potomac, Md. He was 87.

The cause was coronary artery disease, said his son, Patrick C. Koch.

Mr. Koch (pronounced “cook”) was once described by The Washington Post as “one of the capital’s most storied lobbyists.” He came to the District in 1959 as director of federal affairs for Sears, Roebuck & Co. and joined the grocery group as president and chief executive officer in 1966. He retired in 1990.

Early in his tenure, Mr. Koch moved the Grocery Manufacturers of America from New York to Washington. He participated in the effort to create the Universal Product Code, the bar code system used to track store products that was introduced in the early 1970s.

Mr. Koch came to greatest public prominence in the 1970s and 1980s in a matter unrelated to his day job. A member of the Congressional Country Club, an elite club in Bethesda, he was told one day by a waitress that she had been fired without a hearing and that the club had been shorting her wages for years.


George W. Koch led the Grocery Manufacturers of America trade association for a quarter century and was one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington. (Courtesy of K&L Gates)

The encounter led Mr. Koch into a years-long legal battle in which he interviewed dozens of employees and pored over tens of thousands of documents. He concluded that the club had for years been skimming the earnings of its largely minority service staff, The Post reported.

The office of the Maryland attorney general found irregularities in payroll practices, but the club was not prosecuted because the statue of limitations had expired, The Post reported in 1992.

Mr. Koch’s family declined to comment on how the lawsuit involving the Congressional Country Club was resolved. The club also declined to comment.

“I can’t save the world,” Mr. Koch once told The Post. “But I have to carry out my responsibility where I have it. I will not stop until I have rectified what has been done wrong.”

George William Koch was born on April 8, 1926, in Cincinnati. After Navy service during World War II, he received a bachelor’s degree in business in 1948, a bachelor of laws degree in 1950 and a juris doctor degree in 1950, all from the University of Cincinnati.

After working as an assistant city attorney in Cincinnati, Mr. Koch became director of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants before joining Sears and then the Grocery Manufacturers of America. In 2007, that group merged with the Food Products Association to become the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

After his retirement from the trade group, Mr. Koch joined the law firm now known as K&L Gates, from which he retired last year.

Mr. Koch received professional honors and was a mentor to lobbyists and government leaders in Washington, including House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who has said that Mr. Koch was a “surrogate father” to him.

Survivors include his wife of 63 years, Helen Lawton Koch of Potomac; six children, Jorie Koch Kenny of Washington, Daniel L. Koch and Patrick C. Koch, both of Potomac, Robert P. Koch of Bethesda, Md., Monte Koch of Corona del Mar, Calif., and Lucy Lawton Koch of Charlottesville, Va.; and 14 grandchildren. Robert P. Koch is married to the former Dorothy Bush, the daughter of former president George H.W. Bush and sister of former president George W. Bush.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.