Sears Finds Selling Influence Is Tougher Than Socks and Stocks: Nation's Largest Retailer Blends Mid-America Appeal, Huge Resources to Curry Favor for Financial Services Expansion
Naylor, Bartlett, American Banker
WASHINGTON -- Outsiders may imagine Chris Edwards, Sears' banking lobbyish, to be a grizzled veteran of political battles who trails smoke from his cigar as he saunters through the halls of the Congress dispensing contributions and cashing in political favors.
After all, Sears is a powerful force on Capitol Hill. The Chicago-based giant's latest foray is persuading Congress to approve a new breed of banks that could branch nationwide.
But these are modern times and Sear's is putting a more subtle cast on its powers of persuasion. Rather than calling the plan before Congress a move toward interstate banking, Sears' public relations experts have dubbed it a plan for a 'family bank.' It's just one more example of how Sears is trying to dress its raw political clout in homespun clothing. And there's no greater example of that attempt than Chris Edwards.
Chris Edwards is actually 32-year-old Christine Edwards. Hardly a cigar smoker, Ms. Edwards watches her health closely, especially now that she's due to have a child next month. "What better lobbyist to push the family bank than an expectant mother," she smiles.
Her weakness is not for power lunches but for television star Tom Selleck, whose autographed portrait she displays prominently in her Pennsylvania Avenue office.
Lest this disarming image mislead, Ms. Edwards and Sears are by no means pushovers when it comes to lobbying.
Says one Senate staffer who's lobbied by Ms. Edwards twice a month, "She doesn't come on strong. She cuts a low profile. But she's very sharp."
Behind her, Sears maintains one of the capital's largest single-company lobbying shops. There are 28 on staff, most of whom, Like Ms. Edwards, are attorneys. They also contract out work to other attorneys.
Just as bank buildings are designed to look safe and solid, Sears' WAshington office is a striking, historic structure on Pennsylvania Avenue that makes the retailer look like a long-time resident of America's main street.
Here, where Sears is a mere stroll from Capitol Hill, the company has been in the business of lobbying for 50 years out of it's century-long history. (It is a building that once housed diverse Businesses. There was Matthew Brady, the Civil War photographer, and his studio where the Lincoln portraits were taken; the Central Bank of the United States; a posh hotel; and a pharmacy. When first constructed, the building was part of the District's open market that served large segments of the middle class.)
Because of Sears' diverse interests, from insurance (All-state) and real estate (Coldwell Banker), to securities (Dean Witter Reynolds) and exports (Sears World Trade), the company's envoys have cultivated contacts throughout Capitol Hill. And they're backed up by a total of 247 SEars attorneys, the nation's fifth biggest corporate legal department.
Nor is Sears' lobbying limited to the banks of the Potomac. It maintains four field offices with a total staff of -- brace yourself -- 1,200.
"Sears used to be viewed as sleepy old company," says Rep. James Cooper, D-Tenn., a member of the House Banking Committee. "Now, it's very much awake."
Indeed, SEars has a sprawling lobby here that encompasses virtually every aspect of the financial services industry. The corporation and its subsidiaries belong to more than 20 major industry associations.
"Sears had recognized that the way they do business and what they do depends on government regulation," said John Doherty, Chase Manhattan Bank's Washington lobbyist. "They've organized on the grass roots all the way up to Washington."
Sears Chairman Edward Telling himself plans to appear before the Senate Banking Committee this Wednesday to expound on the "family banks." These would be part of an interstate network and offer checking accounts and consumer loans -- car, home, personal loans and the like. …