The DC Chamber of Commerce announced today that Barbara Lang, its president and chief executive for the past 11 years, will resign next year. News of Lang's decision comes just two days after she scored one of her biggest political victories—the defeat of a DC Council bill that would have forced Walmart to pay wages more than 50 percent above the District's minimum wage. In an interview with Washingtonian, Lang says that even though she beat back the Walmart bill, she's not entirely opposed to a minimum wage hike, but she doesn't know by how much it should be raised. And she won't be leaving on pleasant terms with many of DC's elected officials.
Lang, "mid-60s and let's leave it at that," will stay on through early 2014 while the chamber's board looks for a successor, with the help of a recruiting firm. While she does not have her next gig lined up, this is not retirement. But after more than 35 years in the corporate sector and what will eventually be 12 years as the face of local business interests, she's ready to move on.
It did not take long for tributes to flow in from some of Lang's biggest allies. “She leaves an outstanding legacy and big shoes to fill," DC Mayor Vince Gray said in a press release. Lang appears frequently in Gray's entourage when the mayor visits a company's office or cuts the ribbon on a new store or restaurant.
Jim Dinegar, the president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, is also praising Lang. "You’d think there’s tension between the two groups, but I’d tell you nothing is further from the truth," Dinegar tells Washington Business Journal. "She led the fight on the minimum wage, and we backed her up. We led the fight for rail to Dulles, and she backed us up.”
Lang has equally kind words for Gray, but less so for the DC Council, which she says is not particularly friendly toward business interests, and has become increasingly hostile over the years. But in her exit interview with Washingtonian,Lang says that even though she's still looking for her next opportunity, there are no tea leaves in her political criticisms. She might not like the Council's members, but she's got no plans to gun for any of their seats.
You just scored a big legislative win. Why leave now?
After I got here, my marker was going to be 10 years. We were having some real challenges in my 10th year and I felt it was not the appropriate time to leave. I didn't want to leave a new CEO who didn't have any history. The Chamber is doing very well. You leave when you're at the top of your game.
What were some of those challenges?
The recession hit all nonprofits in a pretty big way. And we had just started to come out of it last year. I wanted to do things to solidify, find more streams of revenue. We spent this past year and a half doing that. I leave the chamber ... I think I leave it in a good place. We lost about 300 members during 2009, 2010, and 2011 [due to the recession]. We also had to move to a new location so our expenses increased. A new person coming into that just would not have been fair to the organization. I wanted to make sure I got it beyond this point. When I got here we had $3,000 in the bank and owed everyone in town.
How much do you have in the bank now?
I don't know but I have a budget of about $4 million.
Did you wait for the Large Retailer Act before deciding to leave?
Like I said, you announce when you're leaving when you're on top. Tuesday was a big win. I was pleased to have led that for the business community. I did not want my announcement to be mired in the Large Retailer Accountability Act. The decision for me to leave was made last year. We will probably look at some sort of succession plan through the end of this year. The board asked me to stay into 2014.
You beat the Large Retailer Act, it started a large conversation about the minimum wage in general. The DC Council introduced some bills, the mayor said he wants to raise it. And he mentioned you by name when talking about the stakeholders that might be involved in that. Do you have any thoughts about the minimum wage?
I don't know what the right number is. If you go back to any of my public comments, we have always said the conversation should be shifted to raising the minimum wage for everybody. The chamber is going to commission a quick study to figure out what that is. I assume it would be somewhere between $9.50 and $10, but I need some economic data to tell me that.
But you—and the chamber—support increasing the minimum wage?
We've always said we thought that was appropriate, but we never gave the number because we don't know what that is. $12.50 is too high; that's $5 more than Maryland and Virginia. We are not an island. Our competition is Maryland and Virginia. We need to make sure we're striking the right balance for being in a region.
So what's next for you?
I don't really know. I have not had time to think about this. I'll be looking for my next deal. I don't do retirement very well. I spent 25 years at IBM, 10 at Fannie Mae, it will be 12 years once I'm out of here at the chamber.
And in those 12 years, how has DC changed for business?
When I took this job we were kind of this sleepy town that closed down at five o'clock. Now—and I'd like to think I played some part in it—it's a bustling town even at 9 or 10 PM. The city has evolved to not just being a government town, to really being an economic center. The work has not been finished. We don't have a city council that is particularly business friendly. They don't get that if you have a bustling business community you have a vibrant city. Somehow, they don't understand. We have three or four who get it, but the bulk of them do not. Not a single one of them have ever had to make a payroll, so they don't understand the impact of some of the decisions they have to make.
Is that a hint at future political ambition?
Not at all. I'm as close as I want to come to that.
What about the mayor?
I think the mayor has done a good job at balancing the needs of the community with the business community. If he wants to run again, he'll have a good record. That doesn't mean we agree on everything, but on balance he has been a good mayor.
Anything you feel you might have come up short on in 12 years?
There are always things I wish we had gotten around to do. I think we focused on the right things. The one thing I think we've done a pretty good job of this year is becoming very entrepreneurial. No nonprofit, certainly no chamber, can support itself only on membership dues and events. We've focused on creating other streams of revenue. We have something called Chamber Perks. Whether it's signing up with Constant Contact or FedEx, we have negotiated volume discounts for our customers, and we get a little bit of money from all of those residual deals we've done. We're also a licensed insurance broker. I think that business organizations have to be very entrepreneurial because our economy has changed so much since the downturn.