To listen to Eugene Graf IV, you’d think he was destined to do two things. If you know what his great-grandfather, grandfather, and father did for a living, the first one is fairly easy to guess: The three men were home builders, and Graf followed suit when he started Bozeman, Mont.–based E.G. Construction in 2004.
His second passion—industry advocacy—isn’t quite as obvious. However, Graf’s father was quite active in industry advocacy, serving as president of the Southwest Montana Home Builders Association and the Montana Builders Association. He also contributed his time on the national level for the NAHB, including long-range planning and as chairman of the federal government affairs committee.
So, it should come as no surprise that soon after starting E.G. Construction, Graf became active in industry associations, serving as president of the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association in 2008, and as president of the Montana Building Industry Association in 2012.
“Growing up in the industry with my dad’s involvement in the home building associations, I got involved right away,” Graf says.
Graf also took on national roles on NAHB committees, and he was the 2016 chairman of BUILD-PAC, NAHB’s political action committee. “I like the process," he says. "I like meeting people and getting something accomplished that could be good for everybody."
Ultimately, Graf's goal is to have an even bigger hand in the political process.
An Early Introduction
When Graf took over BUILD-PAC, he wasn’t wide-eyed when meeting with politicians. In fact, he’d been around them his entire life.
“Ever since I was little, I remember [former] Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) was a friend of my dad’s,” Graf says. "Knowing him and seeing the process and having a friendly relationship with him instead of just a professional one opened my eyes to the process.”
As an adult, Graf, a conservative Republican, has developed a good relationship with U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-Mont.). Before the election in November, Zinke told the young builder that if Donald Trump were to become president, there was a chance he could be tapped as part of Trump's Cabinet, leaving the state's Congressional seat vacant.
When Trump won, that’s exactly what happened. On Dec. 15, Trump announced that he would nominate Zinke as Interior Secretary. Five days later, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle ran a piece declaring that Graf was entering the fray to try to win his friend’s seat in Congress.
Graf definitely eyes legislating with a home builder’s perspective. “If [home building] has 14% of GDP and its supposed to be 18%, we’re lagging 4%,” Graf says. “How can we encourage growth in our industry?”
Part of the answer, he says, is eliminating regulations. Graf is confident that Zinke, in his new role, will be able to fix some of the issues that stymie builders.
“By rolling those [executive orders] back or adapting them to be more appropriate, we’re in a good position for the housing industry to move forward,” Graf says.
Fixing Obamacare, he adds, would be next on his list. “My premiums went up 50%,” he says. “As a small-business owner that’s hard to absorb. Where’s that going to come from when I can’t sell that many more houses or build that many more houses that much faster?”
Finally, Graf wants to see policies that will improve construction labor.
“We need to provide a way forward for people to provide jobs in our industry,” he explains. "We need our trade schools and high schools to provide for those needs. We have a good trade school program, but it’s very limited to welding and what the oil fields are in need of. We don’t have a lot of carpenters and electricians coming from those schools. People aren’t seeing a path to success coming out of high schools, so I think we need to change that.”
How will Graf's goals resonate with the average voter who isn’t involved in housing production? Graf says if the regulation issue is solved, that in turn will help affordability in housing. “I think that’s hurting the general population in their ability to find affordable housing,” he says.
If he were to win, Graf has a plan for his business. "Currently I have staff in place to continue the work we have in process," he says. "The future work we will need to have a discussion with the customers and determine if they are comfortable with that infrastructure and process."
The Path Forward
There’s no lack of interest in filling Zinke’s House seat. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported in December that a number of seasoned politicians, including state Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls and state Senate president Scott Sales, are vying for the spot.
Instead of holding a primary, the political parties will meet and representatives called state central committee members (which includes four representatives from each of the state’s 56 counties) will select candidates. Once that happens, the state will hold an election, which should occur 85 to 100 days after Zinke leaves Congress.
While Trump proves there’s an appetite for an outsider candidate, Graf knows he has an uphill battle. But if Graf were to advance to a general election, he thinks his relationships with politicians like Baucus could serve him well. “We’ve always had good relationships with anyone that’s elected,” he says. “Montana is a big state but too small of a place to cross somebody.”
While Graf will be disappointed if his first campaign doesn’t make it beyond the central committee, refocusing solely on home building isn’t a bad outcome, either.
After experiencing some tumult early in his career, Graf sees clearer sailing in the years ahead. “The recession was hard,” he says. Fortunately, he had a trusted mentor with years of experience to guide him during that time. “My dad is my best adviser,” Graf says. “He’s been through this before. I got an offer that was basically breaking even on two houses [as the recession hit], and he said your first loss is your best loss. We got out of that inventory immediately.”
Like many small builders, a turn to remodeling helped Graf keep the doors open during the recession. “We had two big hail storms in two years, so a lot of siding got removed and repaired, and roofs got redone and windows replaced,” he recalls. “We were taking any work we could get.”
Right now, Graf's three-employee company is back to building new homes; it completes five to 10 homes per year. Though he started to focus on entry-level homes, he found a much more fertile sales environment in the $400,000 to $1 million price range. If his Congressional bid fails, he sees an opportunity to expand his business over the next couple of years.
“In my mind, the business environment will be enhanced in the next year or two," he says, "so that’s very enticing to stay in the private sector and be as successful as possible."