Citigroup Inc. Executive Vice President Candi Wolff can talk about Christmas trees for hours. She can tell you how an electric tree baler works, the difference between a Colorado Blue Spruce and a Douglas Fir, and that tree sales are a year-end economic indicator, although she can’t quite tell you why.
Wolff can also recall the times former Vice President Dick Cheney and former President George W. Bush would phone while she was working on her family’s Christmas tree farm in Round Hill, Virginia.
“I’d say, ‘Hold on, I’m out selling trees, hold on!”’ she said in an interview. “And I’d run somewhere where I could actually have a conversation.”
Wolff, 48, Citigroup’s head of global government affairs and a former assistant to Bush for legislative affairs, has been escaping the Beltway — literally and figuratively — for Snickers Gap Tree Farm every winter since 1994. That’s when she met her hydrogeologist husband, Mark Wolff, whose father started planting trees on the 40-acre farm in 1981.
The mountainside farm 55 miles from the White House provides a welcome break from Wolff’s corner office on Pennsylvania Avenue, she says. There, she directs a staff of 42 and oversees Citi’s relations with more than 100 governments, including the U.S. Aside from the poinsettia on her office coffee table, you might not know that the lobbyist, named one of Washington’s 25 most influential women in 2012 by the National Journal, is also a Christmas tree aficionado.
You won’t know, that is, until she’s “gotten to you” –her phrase for inviting you out to Snickers Gap — as she’s done with many Washington friends over the years.
“I would get my Hill colleagues,” said Wolff, who worked for the Republican Senate Steering Committee and Policy Committee during her first few years of farm visits. “We sort of had this high-priced crowd out there — we were the lawyers or lobbyists.”
In those early days, Wolff helped work the baler, a netting machine, because she had smaller fingers than the farm men and was better at tying knots. Today, Snickers Gap trees have grown too big for her to lift easily, so she sticks to customer-related tasks like refilling the apple cider heater, giving directions and handling the money — a fitting job for someone who has been a bank executive since May 2011.
Wolff says she enjoys interacting with customers, many of them longtime Snickers Gap visitors, and that she finds the retail experience “grounding,” in part because not all the customers know who she is. ”I’m wearing jeans and I’m kind of getting back to the earth, if you will,” Wolff said.
As much as Wolff enjoys the farm, she says she doesn’t mix business with pleasure. She chuckles at the mention of agriculture policy, which she jokes about avoiding while at the White House.
“It was never really my interest,” she said while walking through a plot of firs. “I can do this and this is fun, but I don’t want to understand ag policy.”
Fun it may be, though not exactly relaxing. The choose-and-cut farm, which opens the weekend after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday, is usually so busy during the first two weekends of December that Wolff doesn’t have time to check her Blackberry until sundown.
This year, Snickers Gap sold out of all but the largest trees early, giving Wolff more time to chat with her family: Her brother-in-law now owns the farm, her niece and nephew run the “Snack Shack,” and her husband and teenage daughters help customers claim their trees from the hillside.
Wolff says the simple human interaction away from Washington’s Scrooges and stress is one of the tree farm’s greatest holiday gifts. ”They’re out there for Christmas,” Wolff said. “For the most part there’s not a bah-humbug mood. Occasionally you get a few Grinches, but most people are just happy to be out there.”