Vannoy brothers blend their family construction business with golf
Mark and Eddie Vannoy, right, cultivated a construction company with annual revenue totaling as much as $550 million, helping finance their mountain golf course.
By Jim Pomeranz
Photo by Mark Wagoner
Mark Vannoy was itching to get out of the Jefferson Landing clubhouse restaurant on a chilly January afternoon and get out on the golf course at his gated community in mountainous Ashe County. Though the temperature was in the low 40s, he and his guest loaded into a golf cart and headed for the 10th tee.
But playing golf was not on the agenda, with the course, owned by Vannoy, 66, and his brother, Eddie, 70, closed for the winter. Instead, the owners of Jefferson-based James R. Vannoy & Sons Construction Co. were excited to show off the multimillion-dollar renovations at the 28-year-old layout in northwest North Carolina, 90 miles west of Winston-Salem.
Just as if he were discussing a new construction project, Mark enthusiastically described changes to the golf course — led by Greensboro designer Kris Spence — which has been instrumental to the success of his family’s business. Vannoy Construction is No. 18 on the 2018 list of North Carolina’s Top 100 Private Companies, compiled annually by Grant Thornton LLP for Business North Carolina. Meanwhile, Jefferson Landing ranks No. 65 on the North Carolina Golf Panel’s list of the state’s top 100 golf courses. The business, though, came long before the golf expansion.
In 1952, the brothers’ parents, Jim and Wilma, started an Ashe County roofing business, which morphed a decade later into general contracting. Their sons joined the family business in the 1970s after studying business administration at East Carolina University, which was as far away as they could get from Jefferson while remaining in North Carolina, Mark jokes. An early landmark project was a Northwestern Bank branch in West Jefferson, which led to more exposure for the Vannoys and contracts to build more offices for the North Wilkesboro-based bank that was later acquired by Wells Fargo predecessor First Union Corp.
Since then, Vannoy Construction has grown its annual revenue to as much as $550 million, with clients in the health care, retail, higher-education, highway and other sectors. A key client has been home-improvement retailer Lowe’s Cos., which started in nearby North Wilkesboro and is now based in Mooresville. The Vannoys have built more than 200 Lowe’s stores, most recently at an estimated $20 million a pop.
The Vannoys had to be nimble and renovate their business in the 2007-09 recession, taking on more health care projects as retail and banking slid. “We hustled more during that time,” says Mark, who is the company president while Eddie is CEO. “Regular retail work quit coming to us, so we jumped into repair services, roofs, flooring and parking lots. We made a lot of repairs for Bank of America. We had to change our approach overnight, it seems.”
A rebounding economy helped the business return to expansion mode. The contractor now employs more than 300 at offices in Jefferson, Asheville, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Anderson, S.C. Having a headquarters in a county of fewer than 30,000 hasn’t inhibited growth, with projects completed in 40 states and now underway in 15. General building makes up about 80% of construction revenue, with the balance from highways and site work. “About 75% to 80% of our work is repeat business,” Mark says.
The Vannoys have built more Lowe’s than any other contractor, according to Larry Stone, who joined the retailer in 1970 and rose to president before retiring in 2011. “Vannoy did a fantastic job for Lowe’s, always on budget or under budget,” says Stone, a Wilkesboro resident who also has a home at Jefferson Landing. “While they’re good builders, the most important thing in construction is the relationship, and Vannoy and Lowe’s have a very good relationship.”
The Vannoy brothers credit their success to a company philosophy based on what they call the 4 Hs: honor, humility, hospitality and hustle. “We treat our employees like they are part of our family,” Mark says. “It’s been the reason we’ve been able to retain so many employees for so long.” Executive Vice Presidents John Montgomery, a 27-year employee, and Bill Blank, along with Asheville manager Brian Walker, both of whom joined nine years ago, “are part of the discussion of company leadership when Eddie and I are no longer active,” Mark says. The succession planning also involves family, including six children or their spouses who work for the company in roles ranging from finance to project management. Asked if they ever plan to relocate from the community of about 1,400, Mark Vannoy replies, “I don’t see the headquarters moving in my lifetime. But after that it could.”
PGA professional Dean Spainhour has worked at Jefferson Landing for 21 years, largely because of his respect for the family. “I’ve had a couple of chances to do other things, to go other places, but I found a home here,” says Spainhour, who previously worked at a Mount Airy course. “The Vannoys are great people to work for. They expect you to work hard and do your best, but they also take care of us.”
Vannoy has been active in western North Carolina, with Boone projects such as Roess Dining Hall and the Living Learning Center residence hall at Appalachian State University; the Samaritan’s Purse Furman Building and warehouse; and Watauga High School. In Hendersonville, Vannoy built a three-story, $32 million facility on the Pardee Hospital campus that houses Blue Ridge Community College, Wingate University and the hospital. The company is completing the final renovations for the $6 million Appalachian Theatre of the High Country in downtown Boone.
The Vannoys’ impact in their home county has also been significant, says Laura Lambeth, CEO of Ashe Memorial Hospital, which is managed by Novant Health. The family built and donated a birthing center at the hospital and has provided funding to expand its cancer center and renovate the emergency department, among other projects. The company is now general contractor for a cardiovascular center at Novant’s flagship Charlotte hospital, its biggest current project at more than $100 million.
“It’s not just what they do for the hospital,” says Lambeth, who has been in Jefferson for nearly six years. “If anyone in the community needs something, [the Vannoys] usually find a way to help. And they are very humble and don’t want to be recognized for their assistance.”
The golf course plays an important role in the Vannoys’ efforts to win business and to give back to the community. After Eddie’s stepson Jeremy Elliott died in 1996 of leukemia, the family started a golf tournament that has raised nearly $2.5 million in the last 22 years supporting need-based college scholarships for Ashe County students. Among their backers has been Charlotte auto dealer and NASCAR icon Rick Hendrick, who was diagnosed with leukemia the same year Jeremy died. Over the years, the company has built several Hendrick Automotive dealerships.
The brothers conceived the golf course community in the mid-1980s, when Vannoy Construction was building condominiums and townhouses for Elk River Club, a Banner Elk golf course and residential community developed by brothers Harry and Spencer Robbins. For years, they’d also seen the success of nearby Grandfather Golf & Country Club and Linville Ridge in Linville and Hound Ears Club in Boone.
“We were on site at Elk River for three or four years,” Eddie says. “One day, we looked at each other and said, ‘You know, we can do this.’” Avid golfers who have played Augusta National, Pebble Beach Golf Links and many other famous courses, they wanted a distinctive design for their hometown that would be competitive with the Jack Nicklaus-designed Elk River course.
After initial discussions with Arnold Palmer’s design company and looking at two potential sites, the Vannoys chose the Colvard Farms area along N.C. 16 and hired pro golfer Larry Nelson to plot out a course. Nelson, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame who won PGA Championships in 1981 and 1987 and the U.S. Open in 1983, was just starting his business.
The brothers say they didn’t know much about golf-course development, but an early potential homebuyer at the site helped crystallize the concept. At the time, there were no paved roads or lots marked for homes.
“Where’s the highest point for a home?” the client asked. (The Vannoys decline to provide his name.) They took him to a spot where the front of a home would overlook the golf course, and the back would peer down at the New River. “How much for this lot?” he asked. The Vannoys didn’t have an answer, but the inquisitor persisted, even when the brothers explained that the lots were not defined or surveyed. Finally, the Vannoys suggested a sizable dollar amount, a figure pulled out of the air. “Draw up the papers,” the client said.
Construction started in 1988, with Jefferson Landing opening three years later, marking only the third course that Nelson had designed. “At first, we looked at this project as something fun to do, and [we] hoped to profit from it,” Mark says. “But when we started moving more than a million cubic yards of earth for the golf course and the residential lots and roads, we really wondered what we were doing,” Mark initially suggested calling the development Naked Creek Country Club, referring to a tributary of the New River that runs throughout the property and touches nearly every hole on the course. That idea wasn’t seriously considered, and the final name was selected after a contest involving suggestions from Ashe County folks.
In the first few years, houses, condominiums and a lodge sprinkled the development. In 2005, a period when real-estate values were peaking, the Vannoys sold the course to two Florida investors who put down a sizable down payment and financed the balance with the brothers. Five years later, amid a recession that slammed many golf-course developments, the new owners needed a lifeline. The Vannoys and a new limited partnership took back control of the business.
Mark and Eddie now own the entire complex and work together to ensure its success, including daily visits by one or the other. “The course and facilities were not up to the standard we envisioned when we took it back,” Mark says. “We knew we had a lot of work to do. We knew it could be better, much better than it was.”
Adds Eddie, “We’ve poured our heart and soul into the place since we came back.”
And money. Close to $2 million has been spent to renovate the clubhouse, lodge and condominiums. The course renovation is expected to exceed $3.5 million. “We’re putting a lot more into these changes than what we spent building the golf course about 30 years ago,” Eddie says.
Since its early days, Jefferson Landing has had a steady roster of 300 golf and social members. New-member initiation costs $7,500, and full membership annual dues are $5,700. Members have never been asked to cover any shortfall from club operations, and they are not paying for the current renovations.
On that cold, windy day in January, as the sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, and the wind was picking up, the tour was nearing its end. The guest was about to depart and turned to Mark, who had precisely detailed the changes and improvements to Jefferson Landing. “Even with the success of your construction business,” the guest asked, “this course, these facilities are your baby, so to speak?”
It appeared Mark was tearing up just a little. It may have been from the cold and the wind, or perhaps the question hit a soft spot.
“It really is,” he said. “We’re proud of it.” ■
Movin’ on up
Renovations led by ace designer Kris Spence are boosting Jefferson Landing’s reputation.
Avid N.C. golfers’ opinion of Mark and Eddie Vannoy’s Jefferson Landing course has trended more bogey than birdie in recent years. The course ranked 84th in the North Carolina Golf Panel’s Top 100 ranking in 2015, 95th in 2016 and unranked a year later. The Vannoys, both golf lovers who have knocked balls around some of the most famous U.S. tracks, knew it would take a better course and improved facilities to move up the list.
To overhaul the course, they turned to Kris Spence, a Greensboro-based designer and renovator who has worked on more than 20 courses in North Carolina, including Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, the Country Club of North Carolina in Pinehurst, the Omni Grove Park Inn in Asheville and Providence Country Club in Charlotte.
Prior to starting the process, members of the panel spent two days in June 2017 playing golf and learning about the improvement plans. Major renovations were only in the planning stages, but ongoing improvements and the hospitality provided by the Vannoys caught the fancy of the panel, made up of about 150 golf fanatics. The day after the panel’s visit, Spence started work on suggested changes.
Last year, the course jumped to 69th on the ranking, then moved to 65th this year, with renovations still under way. The project has been a nearly complete makeover, including a new irrigation system and an improved practice area.
The sand bunkers with flashed faces have more visibility from tees and the fairway. There are six Scottish-style “revetted” sod-wall bunkers, including three fronting the par-3 14th hole. The style is akin to the famous bunker at the legendary Road Hole, the 17th at St. Andrews, Scotland.
The tee areas have been enlarged and lowered and fitted with a sub-surface drainage system. The fairways and the tees have been converted to “007 bentgrass,” eliminating the original bluegrass that borders the fairways as rough. In season, the two types of grasses offer a stark contrast of color. A par-3 course is under construction and likely to be completed by 2020.
“These changes open up the course, giving you a better look from tee to green,” Spence says. “The par-3 course is an interesting twist. In addition to the practice tee, it’s a neat place for golfers to warm up before a round or to settle a bet after a round.”
Spence doesn’t take all of the credit for the changes to the course. The bunkers and a man-made creek and waterfall on the 18th hole were strongly suggested by the Vannoys. “We really like the creek that was added to the 18th hole at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte,” Mark Vannoy says. “So, we added one on our last hole. And we think the revetted bunkers will make the 14th hole much more memorable, maybe make it our signature hole.”
Jefferson Landing resident Steve Johnson, a longtime member of the North Carolina Golf Panel, has watched the course changes. “They wanted a nicer place for members, residents and guests,” he says. “I’m really impressed with what’s been done and what’s being done. They got good advice and made design changes that really pique the golfer’s interest. I think Jefferson Landing could be a top 50 North Carolina golf course.”