Honesty & Work Ethic
An interview with Panama City Living,
"Couples Working Together"
Building a Life Together
Nathan and Heidi Graben of Graben Construction have been designing award- winning luxury homes for 30 years – the same number of years they’ve been married. Nathan is the mastermind of unique open floor plans, and Heidi lends her creativity to both interior and exterior design. They invited Panama City Living into their stately home office to tell us about growing together, working together, and being successful together.
Tell us how you met. Where was your first date?
Heidi: Nathan and I have really known each other since elementary school. Our families knew each other. We started dating when I was 18….
Nathan: And I was 22. I lived on the beach, her family lived in town, and then her family moved to the beach, and so that’s when I saw her after all that time. Our first date was about a year before we got married.
Heidi: We went riding on the dunes down 30-A and on Thomas Drive.
Nathan: It wasn’t the normal dinner and a movie thing. Yeah, before all those condos were built, there was nothing but sand dunes and a few old motels. We’d go four-wheeling, build bonfires.
What was it like going into business together at such an early stage in your relationship?
Heidi: He got his Florida Contractors License in March 1983, and we got married in October 1983.
Nathan: She didn’t have any knowledge at all of construction, and every year I taught her more and gave her more responsibility. So, now she does everything, and I go golfing.
Heidi: < Laughing> He doesn’t even golf.
Nathan: No, I don’t play golf… but, every year, she got more involved in the business, and now she’s 100 percent involved. We started out pretty daring in our work, because we were in agreement; we were daring and different from the start, but we’ve become more daring as we got older together, more experienced together. I did a lot of colors and designs that nobody else wanted to do, because they were afraid to get away from the standard. So to compete, I made up designs that just came to me, did things that were just different, and Heidi was on the same page with me, and that’s how we became successful.
Heidi: What he designed got attention. His homes had a wow factor.
Back then, he was building 1,400 square foot homes with 12- foot ceilings and three-stage crown molding. People loved it. Over the years, we’ve gotten better and more unique, and the homes got bigger and bigger. We build all sizes of homes, but our niche has brought us into a more dramatic style, but we build anything.
Nathan: Yeah, people were building big luxury homes that didn’t have some of these features. All we did was add some nice trim, arches and some interesting touches, that people would see only in a large luxury home, into our smaller homes from the start.
Heidi: His floor plans would make a 1,500 square foot home feel like a 2,000 square foot home just because of the way it was laid out. He’s always excelled at drawing out plans and then building them. While he still sketches out a spec/model home plan, we also work closely with various local architects to build one of their own unique designs.
Nathan: Heidi is always on the same page. When she picks out fixtures, plumbing and lights, she finds things that aren’t widely available… high-quality, artistic fixtures that people have never seen before.
Heidi: I try to find the best bang for the buck. I shop wisely for every product needed and work with different suppliers to find good quality at the best pricing. I take time to find things that are unique, and that requires a lot of thought. My mind is twirling 24/7. But I try to think about the client and try to put their personality into the home. I love to find out who the client is, and I may try to push them a little beyond their comfort zone, because I know they’ll love it once it’s done. The final decision is always theirs, but I like to present different ideas to them, get their creative juices flowing, so they’re a part of the whole project. That is, to me, very rewarding. It’s a service that we provide, and we don’t charge for that.
Did you ever think about opening a separate interior design business?
Heidi: I’ve had people want to hire me to design their own home, but I feel like Nathan and I are so connected that we’re a package deal. Now if they hire us to build the home, and they hire someone else to do the interior designs, I have no problem. But I wouldn’t want to go off and work with another builder when I have my partner right here.
With your business office inside your home, are you ever “off the clock?”
Nathan: Not really. Things will pop up after the day is over, so we just fit it in however it works. It depends on the situation.
Heidi: You can’t help but talk about things, because it’s a part of our lives. Our home is where we do most of our work, and we’ve always opted to have our office in our home, so our home life and work life has always been blended.
What’s the best thing about working together?
Nathan: We know each other so well… If there‘s a problem, we work it out. Same thing with subcontractors on the job, we try to work things out. If we’re not working out good together, we work through it to fix it. We don’t just give up.
Heidi: Good moral ethics, being honest, treating people right. That’s how we’ve always felt about each other, and we’ve carried that over to our work and our clients.
Does working together ever become difficult, especially since you sit across from one another in the same office?
Heidi: Sure, we rub each other the wrong way occasionally. He has to put me in my place, but he can’t fire me. I had to learn to be, according to what the Bible says, in subjection to my husband. We both believe the Bible principles, very much so, which is why we have the good work ethics that we do. We are like polar opposites, I think, when it comes to personalities. I’m more flamboyant and open, and he’s more subdued… he’ll sit back and calculate it all and then give his decision. So, I may say a hundred words, and he says five. We had to learn to get along with our personality differences, but I’ve learned over the years that there’s one head, and he’s the boss. And things are better when I just listen to my boss. But is it difficult? Of course, it is. Any relationship is difficult, but we’ve learned to manage it, and that’s how we can sit across from each other. Right away, our marriage became our business… This is how our life has always been. I’ve never known it another way. We learned how to make things smoother, what I needed to work on, what he needed to work on…
Nathan: Yeah, we learned together.
Heidi: We’ve grown up together, worked together, and been successful together.
So, what do you together for fun?
Heidi: We have a boat, and we love to fish… we’ve always enjoyed the outdoors.
Nathan: Offshore fishing… diving…. anything on the water.
Heidi: We play together a lot, and we’re still best friends.
What advice can you offer to other couples?
Nathan: Be flexible, be understanding…
Heidi: Always communicate, apologize…
Nathan: Be honest and upfront… plan together so things work like a fine running machine.