Super-sub to superstar

Brandon Vannest started as a subcontractor with Alpine Gardens but is now one of their most valued employees.

Brandon Vannest, Alpine Gardens
Photo courtesy of Alpine Gardens

From metal sculptures to painting to designing gorgeous outdoor oases, Brandon Vannest has an eye for the extraordinary.

Currently working as a residential designer/project manager for Alpine Gardens in Fort Collins, Colorado, Vannest has been utilizing his artistic talents since the start of the millennium.

“I started working with Alpine Gardens back in 2003,” Vannest says. “But I wasn’t an employee at the time. I was a subcontractor.

“I had started my own waterfall construction company in 2001,” he adds. “I worked for Alpine and got to know the people there over the eight years that followed. When the economy went bad, Jack Fetig, one of the owners of Alpine, offered me a job. And that’s how I started being an employee. He was generous enough to try and help me out because he knew that times were tough for me.”

Since joining full-time, Vannest has held several positions with the company, which employs about 120 people.

“I started working for them in 2008 and started out as just a laborer who’d help out with water features because that’s what I knew best,” he says. “I just worked my way through the company. I was a laborer for probably about three years then got moved up to foreman. That was very hands on out in the field. I did that for about four years before I became a project superintendent… and just two years ago I was moved into the designer and project manager role.”

Kris Nylander, sales manager with Alpine Gardens and Vannest’s direct supervisor, says he knew all along that Vannest was destined for the designer role.

“I always knew he would be a good designer, though he didn’t really have any formal training. We’d joke and talk half-seriously for years about training him to learn CAD and learn how to do landscape design. He wasn’t too familiar with plants but certainly knew all the other elements of landscaping,” Nylander recalls. “He got to a point where he decided he wanted to make the switch. For a season or so he was in a hybrid position, so he’d still manage on the field-side and manage the projects he’d design. We didn’t give him a huge sales goal. It was just for him to try it out.”

Vannest took to the role instantly. With still under three years of experience, he’s in contention for the company’s top sales position this year with over $1.6 million in projects already designed, sold and managed in 2022.

“He took a different route to get here than most of us do,” Nylander says. “He’s been patient with the process of learning. Some people go to school and get a degree, and some people do it another way. And he’s taken a different path to get here but you can tell he’s enjoying it.”

Operations Manager Don Morse says in the seven years he’s been working with Vannest, the communication between the two has always been stellar.

“Brandon is so down-to-earth, outgoing, hardworking and kind. He’s kind of the perfect employee,” Morse says. “He’s one of those few individuals you just instantly like and he’s always got a smile on his face.”

When work imitates life

That smile is plastered on his face because for Vannest, it’s more than a job — it’s a passion.

“I’ve always been a self-proclaimed artist,” he says. “I’m a sculptor. I used to do paintings and drawings and things like that, and I’ve always wanted to be in design. That’s what drew me to the waterfall construction business because it was a new medium. I was, in a sense, building sculptures out of rocks and water.”

Morse remembers being taken aback when he first learned of Vannest’s sculpture work, which has since been heavily highlighted in clients’ projects.

“He’s so multi-faceted,” Morse says. “A lot of people don’t even get exposed to all he’d able to do. There’s been several clients who want a statue and he’s built things as varied from a mountain lion to a fox and others.”

From his very first day, Nylander says Vannest’s talent has been impressing everyone.

“His creativity with creating spaces is remarkable,” he says. “He enjoys helping his clients achieve what they’re looking for. All his customers are begging for more work from him down the road. They can’t wait to see the next project come to life.”

For Vannest, the best part of the job is being able to embrace his artistic side.

“I really like creating things, and being in the role I’m in now is like the perfect job. I don’t really feel like I’m going into work, I just feel like I’m doing what I truly love to do,” he says. “I’m very blessed in that regard to design and build amazing projects and amazing relationships with customers, too.

“I just want to make art in people’s yards. I want to make projects that nobody has seen before and push the limits of what a landscape is and how it can be used,” Vannest adds.

Morse says that while Vannest’s talent is obviously outstanding, it’s his enthusiasm and drive that sets him apart.

“His dedication to his craft is outstanding,” he says. “There are very few people who have this level of dedication. Compile that with his talent. Because it’s one thing to have dedication, but if you don’t have the talent, then it’s not quite as good.”

With all his field experience, Vannest still gives a hands-on approach to all his designs.
Photo courtesy of Alpine Gardens
Photo courtesy of Alpine Gardens
Photo courtesy of Alpine Gardens

The freedom to further change

Vannest’s dedication is evident through more than just his artistic abilities. He’s also constantly pitching new ideas for the company to improve its processes and procedures. One idea that’s had the most impact has been a new design software he researched dutifully.

“Technology has always been a hobby of mine and finding new ways to use it,” Vannest says. “I brought to the team a program that renders our landscapes in a very realistic way. It’s a program we can share and present to people…it’s new software that really helps the customer visualize what we’re going to build.”

Nylander adds that this new software allows for more visual elements like moving people, wind, clouds and rain to give the mockups a more realistic approach.

“A lot of what we do is tough to show in just black and white linework,” Nylander says.

Adding that Vannest researched and learned this software all on his own time, Nylander says using it has become standard practice now at Alpine Gardens — all thanks to Vannest.

“He’s fully immersed himself in it and is the go-to guy for that software and helps the rest of it use it to its full potential,” Nylander says. “It’s really transformed what we do.”

Morse says Vannest’s ideas don’t stop at software.

“He’s always thinking and innovating,” Morse says. “He doesn’t just do something because that’s how he did it the last time. If there’s a project with unique challenges, he won’t just throw up his hands at it. He’s well thought out in ways to solve those problems.”

Vannest says having the confidence to suggest a change or implement something new is easy because of the environment he’s working in.

“The nice thing about Alpine Gardens is all the way up to the top, everyone is very receptive to new ideas and willing to talk things through because they want the best for the customers as well,” he says. “If this was a massive company, I think it’d be harder to change directions.”

An instant inspiration

All of this and more makes Vannest a standout employee. But what colleagues of his appreciate most is his commitment to help everyone.

“He leads by example when mentoring,” Morse says. “His work ethic is outstanding. He comes to work early and stays late when its needed. If someone asks him for help, he’ll stop what he’s doing and go help. People are naturally drawn to him because of his personality, but also because of his experience and talent, they seek him out for advice and help all the time. And he’s always willing to give it.”

His years of experience on jobsites is what makes him such a sought-after consultant, Nylander says.

“Having that field experience has been really helpful for the younger designers as well to really understand what’s required to build a project,” he says. “It’s cool that he has both ends of it. He has a vision and a knowledge. As a designer, that’s not too common. You usually have one or the other.

“Guys having to build the water features still call Brandon daily when they’re on projects,” Nylander adds.

Vannest agrees that having all the hours in the field logged gives him a unique opportunity to teach both sides a thing or two.

“Me being in the field for so long and seeing everything and then coming into the management side and the design side, I’ve now been on both sides of it,” he says. “If you don’t work in the field, or don’t work in the office all day, you don’t understand what the challenges are for either side. I think seeing that, I was able to bring some help and awareness on both sides.”

But as Morse notes, it’s not just his experience that draws people in. Nylander says Vannest has one of the best work ethics he’s ever seen.

“He’s such a good guy to be around and brings an excitement to the team,” Nylander says. “He’s in his mid-forties but has this youthful energy and is excited about the work that we do. He’s been reinvigorated with this new role and is excited about it. His attitude is so fun to be around. He inspires everyone to try and do their best as well.”

Vannest humbly adds that it’s easy to inspire others when they in turn inspire you.

“We have really good crews and really good superintendents that are the absolute best,” he says. “There is no way I would’ve had any success in the last couple of years if it wasn’t for the people I’ve worked with and worked for. We are a team.”

The author is assistant editor at Lawn & Landscape magazine.

December 2022
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