With a heavy heart and fond memories, the Graebel organization announces the loss of company founder and Chairman Emeritus, David W. Graebel, who passed away on November 29, 2023 at the age of 94.
We offer our deepest sympathies to Dave’s son, Bill, grandchildren, Jessica, Luke, Will, David and Dan, great-grandchildren, Lev and Radlee, and other members of his extended family. Dave was preceded in death by his parents Ben and Nina, sister Nancy Graebel Krause, daughter Jessica, wife Lois and son Ben.
Dave founded his company with his father in 1950. Over the next 70 years, he nurtured, expanded and strategically redefined it so that today, Graebel is a leading worldwide global relocation management company with more than 1,000 employees and offices on three continents.
To understand and appreciate Dave’s story, it’s important to account for the impact of key advice he received from his mother at an early age: “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. Nina was a schoolteacher who gave up her career to raise Dave and Nancy. Ben worked in food distribution before affiliating his warehousing business, Wausau Public Storage, with Mayflower Moving. During his teenage years, Dave gladly pitched in at the warehouse, working with local movers who were packing and loading. He later recalled, “I always liked the truck drivers. They seemed to have such interesting lives. One of them taught me how to drive a truck and then a truck and a trailer.”
In 1950, at age 21, Dave left the University of Wisconsin (Marathon County) and embarked on his business career. He and Ben purchased a Mayflower statewide moving authority, renaming the company Graebel Movers. They bought their first truck from a local dealership. 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.
In a 1999 interview, Dave explained that during that period, “I never waited for the telephone to ring. I went to every For Sale sign I could find and just knocked on the door.” It’s not surprising that Graebel Movers soon was the most successful small-market Mayflower agency in the U.S.
Dave left the Mayflower family in 1956 and affiliated Graebel Movers with Allied Van Lines Group where he had the opportunity to introduce new ways to provide exceptional value to his customers. These industry breakthroughs included packaging innovations like 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 Dave established hubs in New York, Florida, Georgia and Texas. By the 1970s, Graebel Movers handled nearly 10% of Allied’s national volume and maintained the largest Allied fleet in the U.S.
Dave saw tremendous opportunities for his company with the deregulation of the moving industry in 1980. New laws made it easier to establish independent van lines and compete based on price, transit schedules and other service levels. In 1982, Dave pulled Graebel Movers out of the franchise agent networks, establishing Graebel Van Lines, an independent interstate carrier. Together with Graebel Movers, the nationwide moving and storage company, the Graebel organization (Graebel Companies, Inc.) provided coast-to-coast services, competing with the large franchise interstate van lines.
Graebel Companies, Inc. also included Graebel Movers International, which provided freight forwarding services. It flourished as well during this period thanks to the company’s service centers in all the major U.S. shipping ports and its affiliations with leading international mover organizations and their premier members around the world.
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!”
Hiding was the last thing on Dave’s mind, though. 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.
Within five years, Graebel Companies, Inc. was earning annual revenue of nearly $50 million. Three years later that figure had doubled. The company’s revenue per shipment far outpaced their competitors, thanks to Graebel’s higher proportion of corporate clients with their larger average shipment sizes and longer distance moves. As the 1980s drew to a close, roughly 90% of the company’s business was with corporations – well above the industry average.
As the company grew, Dave and his teams worked together to innovate on an even greater scale, leading the industry in critical areas of technology and processes: price guarantees; pickup and delivery guarantees; WorldWatch® 24-hour hotlines; driver and crew certification programs; service coordinators at every branch office; transparent, direct pass-through and value pricing; performance-based contracts and Ambassador Level service.
By the turn of the century, Graebel Companies was the largest independent relocation company in the U.S. and the fastest growing company in the industry. Graebel employed 2,200 employees in 40 locations and had more than 2,000 trucks – one of the most advanced fleets in the industry – adorned with an iconic American flag design. Dave had moved the company headquarters to Colorado in 1990 and Graebel Companies’ state-of-the-art world headquarters was completed in 1999 in Aurora.
Dave also 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.” As the company opened offices across the country, 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.
Dave also ensured that the company offered progressive benefits, including a scholarship program for employees’ and drivers’ children and an employee tuition reimbursement program. 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 organizations began outsourcing their employee relocation programs to relocation management companies (RMCs). Graebel’s corporate client employee moves were increasingly managed through these RMCs. Dave wasn’t pleased that these arrangements relegated Graebel to serving as a subcontractor rather than a corporate partner.
In 1996, Dave decided that Graebel could, in fact, 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) realized 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, recognized the wisdom of the divestiture.
After this transition, Dave 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 organization 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 both had a passion for the industry, but they quickly learned that if they chose to follow in Dave’s footsteps, their place in the company wasn’t assumed, nor was it guaranteed. Dave held them to the same standards as others in the company.
In 2007, Dave promoted Bill to the CEO role. Dave remained an active Chairman, coming to the office every day (except during summer fishing season which was spent in Wisconsin) to manage staff, engage with the industry trade groups, collaborate with Bill on board matters (including the divestiture) and work closely with the Marketing team on matters related to the company’s brand and messaging.
In January of 2018, Bill took on the additional role of Chairman of the Board while Dave served as non-executive Chairman Emeritus.
With an unrelenting passion, Dave dedicated his life not only to advancing quality standards within his company but within the moving and storage/relocation industry as well. 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.
Dave also rolled up his sleeves to support the communities where he lived. He served as President of Wausau (WI) School District, President of the Samoset Council of the Boy Scouts of America, Founding President of Northern Wisconsin Junior Achievement and a member of the Corporate Committee of the Volunteers of America in Denver. At his church, he served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors and as a Sunday School teacher.
An avid skier, competing in downhill races into his 80s, Dave also served on the Board of the U.S. 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?’”
Throughout his life, Dave made a positive impression on everyone he met – whether it was a former U.S. President, an NFL coach, a server at a local breakfast cafe or a new Graebel employee. These people would walk away with same impression, likely saying, “Wow, what a great guy! He just made my day!”
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, Dave 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.”
In 2021, the Junior Achievement of Wisconsin – Northcentral District honored Dave with their Champions of Business Founder Award which recognizes visionary business leaders whose contributions have made Northcentral Wisconsin a great place to live and work.
When asked what he was most proud of in his career, Dave quickly responded, “We started with that first truck, never doing it for the money but for the trust. On a global basis we’ve earned a reputation of trust and progressiveness. Now that’s not bad for a truck driver who got a couple good loads!”
That’s the personal and professional legacy Dave leaves as a standard for his family members, friends and colleagues who mourn his loss and celebrate his life.