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K Street Files: McBee Shop Rebuilding Under Wiley Rein

Rob Chamberlin never took his ex-boss, Steve McBee, for the type who would sell his K Street outfit to a big, multinational advertising conglomerate.  

Turns out, he was right — sort of.  

But he could not have predicted what happened to the firm late last year.  

Like his other 60 colleagues, Chamberlin was shocked when McBee announced his departure from the shop he founded to take the chief executive job at energy company NRG Home . Law firm Wiley Rein bought McBee Strategic Consulting and amid the chaos nearly 20 people hit the exits, including McBee’s wife, Jennifer Noland, and several high-level lobbyists.  

The drama is over now, according to Chamberlin and others who remain at McBee. Their message: McBee is open for business, clients are signing up and the firm is making senior-level hires as it rebuilds under the new ownership. “The uncertainty is really gone,” said Chamberlin, who spent a decade working in McBee’s mini-empire . “It’s almost the best of both worlds: We’re an independent wholly owned subsidiary, yet we have all the benefits and resources of working with a large law firm.”  

McBee Strategic recently brought in Noe Garcia, a longtime lobbyist and policy veteran, as an executive vice president. And the firm announced last week a new hire, Clare Adams, who will serve as a director specializing in cybersecurity. She joined from Intel Security.  

Chamberlin, Eric Bovim, Jessica Rihani, Sam Whitehorn and Jeff Markey round out the McBee leadership team, which also includes Wiley Rein executives Peter Shields and Kim Melvin.  

Bovim, who folded his communications outfit Gibraltar Associates into McBee Strategic in January 2013, said the pipeline for new advocacy and communications work in the first 30 days of this year has resulted in contracts valued at $2 million of annual business.  

“Wiley has inundated us with client leads,” Bovim said of the new parent during an interview in the airy, hipster-esque McBee suite at 4th Street and Massachusetts Avenue Northwest, across town from Wiley Rein’s K Street digs. They don’t plan to move in together.  

Even though the tumult has quieted down and many employees stuck around, the departures took a toll.  

Rival firm Podesta Group scooped up Matt Johnson — a rare K Streeter with close ties to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas — and Josh Lahey, a communications specialist. Emily Crane Pimentel, a vice president, left McBee just two weeks ago to go in-house for ICANN.  

And McBee disclosed several client terminations at the beginning of the year, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Corrections Corporation of America, Eastman Chemical Co. and the National Mining Association, among others. (The firm is keeping NRG as a lobbying client, Chamberlin said.)  

Bovim acknowledged a period when the firm was “bereft of leadership” — McBee himself was focused on finding a buyer for his shop in the fall, though many of his employees were completely in the dark.  

“You have to understand, the day that Steve told us between the time when the Wiley opportunity arose, there was a period of a couple weeks of complete uncertainty,” Bovim said. “A lot of people, especially junior people, were looking at this and thinking, ‘Am I even going to have a job in two, three weeks, a month?’ And they began looking in earnest.”  

Bovim, Chamberlin and Shields, Wiley Rein’s managing partner, stress the departures were all voluntary; some senior employees who left were under heavy pressure to stay. But Wiley Rein, when making the deal whose terms the firms will not disclose, factored in staff and client attrition. (The McBees were the sole owners of the shop.)  

“We are encouraging them to hire new people. We want them investing and hiring,” Shields said. “We’re having a lot of discussions about growth and hiring.” He said the firm does not have a head-count target. “Smart growth for us is the right people, whether it’s eight or 20,” he said.  

Shields also won’t specify Wiley Rein’s revenue targets for McBee, which last year brought in more than $10 million in Lobbying Disclosure Act fees.  

“They don’t have immense pressure in year one,” Shields said. “We are in this for the long haul, and we want it to work.”  

And if there is any remaining animosity for the shop’s ex-owner — insiders say there never was an official going-away fete for McBee — Chamberlin and Bovim won’t let on to it publicly.  

Once Chamberlin understood the unbelievable opportunity McBee had before him to run a $6 billion energy company with 5,000 employees, he said, he believes McBee had no choice but to take the job.  

“I would’ve done it in a heartbeat,” Chamberlin said. “I would’ve been like, ‘Hey, love you guys, see you later.’”  

Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.

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