An extraordinary life

How Dave Graebel built his business from one truck to one of the world’s leading RMCs.

David W (Dave) Graebel, Founder and former Chairman of Graebel Companies Inc, died on 29 November. He was 94 years old. The organisation continues under the leadership of son Bill Graebel, current chair and CEO, along with its senior executive team.

“During this difficult time, we are remembering Dave’s larger-than-life presence, enthusiasm and dedication to Graebel, the global mobility industry, friends and family,” said Ron Dunlap, Graebel Companies president. “We proudly carry on his legacy and live the values he exemplified — truth, love and integrity — which are the foundations of the company he built.”

Dave founded his company with his father in 1950. Today, Graebel is a leading worldwide global relocation management company with more than 1,000 employees and offices on three continents.  At a young age he was given some good advice by his mother: “You must let go of the rung below to reach for the rung above.” Dave executed that feat nearly flawlessly at the helm of Graebel.

Dave was born in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1929 to Nina and Ben Graebel. Ben worked in food distribution before affiliating his warehousing business, Wausau Public Storage, with Mayflower Moving. During his teenage years, Dave gladly pitched with the crews.  He later recalled, “I always liked the truck drivers. They seemed to have such interesting lives.”

Aged 21, Dave left the University of Wisconsin and embarked on his business career. He and Ben purchased a Mayflower statewide moving authority, renaming the company Graebel Movers. Dave and Lois were married in September of that same year and Dave was drafted into the Army in December. Lois and Ben ran Graebel Movers in Dave’s absence until Ben passed away in 1953. Dave returned from military service in Korea and ran the company for his mother until he and Lois purchased her share of the business in 1960.

“I never waited for the telephone to ring,” said Dave. “I went to every ‘For Sale’ sign I could find and just knocked on the door.” Graebel Movers was soon the most successful small-market Mayflower agency in the US.

Dave left Mayflower in 1956 and affiliated Graebel Movers with Allied Van Lines Group. At this time he introduced industry breakthroughs such as wardrobe boxes and cell-packs. Dave expanded the company regionally to Appleton, Milwaukee and Chicago. As a military-trained pilot, he flew his own plane throughout the Midwest for meetings and appointments. Soon he had hubs in New York, Florida, Georgia and Texas. By the 1970s, Graebel Movers handled nearly 10% of Allied’s national volume.

The moving industry was deregulated in 1980 and, seeing tremendous opportunities, Dave pulled Graebel Movers out of the franchise agent networks in 1982, establishing Graebel Van Lines, an independent interstate carrier providing coast-to-coast services, competing with the large franchise interstate van lines. Graebel Movers International provided freight forwarding services. Dave later described that moment. “For the first time ever, we were completely on our own. We had had no agency network to fill our trucks and no network to fill our warehouses. I had no place to hide!”

When Graebel left Allied, the company had 13 locations – within two years he had facilities in 32 cities and a robust, nationwide hub-and-spoke transit system. By the end of the 1980s,

roughly 90% of the company’s business was with corporations.

The company continued to innovate: price guarantees; pickup and delivery guarantees; WorldWatch® 24-hour hotlines; driver and crew certification programmes; service coordinators at every branch office; transparent, direct pass-through and value pricing; performance-based contracts and Ambassador Level service. By 2000, Graebel was the largest independent relocation company in the US with 2,200 employees in 40 locations and over 2,000 trucks. The company’s new world headquarters in Aurora, Colorado, was completed in 1999.

Dave paid close attention to his own people during this period, operating under the principle that “People don’t like to be managed, they like to be led.” He put strong leaders in place, ensuring that they, like he, embraced the concept of servant leadership – putting resources and attention where the interaction with customers takes place. Employee benefits included: a scholarship programme for employees’ and drivers’ children and an employee tuition reimbursement programme. He endorsed his son Ben’s efforts to create Graebel University to help ensure consistent, best-in-class customer service coast to coast.

Not long after deregulation, large organisations began outsourcing their employee relocation programmes to relocation management companies (RMCs). Dave wasn’t pleased that these arrangements relegated Graebel to serving as a subcontractor rather than a corporate partner. In 1996, he decided that Graebel could excel as an RMC. He formed a full-service relocation division, focusing first on home sale and purchase services. Over time, the division expanded its service portfolio, eventually becoming Graebel Relocation Services Worldwide.

As the industry evolved, Dave (as chairman) and Bill (as CEO) realised that the future of the company was in the RMC side of the business. They spent more than a year exploring divestiture of the moving and storage operations, which came to fruition in 2015.

Leaving the moving and storage industry was a courageous move for a man who had built that side of business from practically nothing over 65 years. It meant saying goodbye to truck crews and warehouse workers – the independent contractors and employees Dave always valued. Bill recalls, though, that at the time Dave, more than he, recognised the wisdom of the divestiture. Dave then scaled back his activity with the company, devoting more time to his family, travel and outdoor activities.

Dave never insisted his sons join the family business. Bill recalls a conversation with his brother and father when Dave very pointedly reminded them both, “We have an organisation that can afford some of the best talent. The worst thing we can do is have family members take key roles who are not worthy of it, are not good at it or are not interested in it.”  Bill and Ben’s position in the company wasn’t assumed.

In 2007, Dave promoted Bill to CEO. Dave remained an active chairman and involved in the business. In January of 2018, Bill took on the additional role of Chairman of the Board while Dave served as non-executive Chairman Emeritus (former).

Dave dedicated his life to advancing quality standards within his company and the industry.  He was a Charter member of Overseas Moving Network International (OMNI) and served on the Board of the American Movers Conference and the American Moving & Storage Association. He also supported his local community and, as an avid skier, competed in downhill races into his 80s and served on the Board of the US Ski and Snowboard Team Foundation. In a 2010 speech, Dave described his mindset for success. “With the soul of a servant we can go out every day and say, ‘Hey World, what do you need?’”

In reflecting on Dave’s legacy, Bill explains, “My father established some principles that have proved timeless. How he brought the company from one truck to a global relocation management company was simple: commitments made are commitments kept.”

In 2008, Dave received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Moving & Storage Institute. At the ceremony, he advised his peers to, “Forget about how many competitors you have out there. You don’t get any business from competitors. The only competitor you have to overcome is your own inclination to quit, compromise or to tolerate.”

Photo:  Dave Graebel