The Psychology of Innovation – Robert Vipperman, SVP, HR & Innovation at Alex Lee, Inc.

Rachelle Nones Human Resources, Issue 05 - May/June 2013 Leave a Comment

Robert Vipperman draws on his executive coaching experience to lead Alex Lee’s HR and Innovation teams with a centered and balanced approach.

By Rachelle Nones

With a doctorate in clinical psychology firmly in hand, Robert Vipperman landed an executive coaching position at RHR Intl. that early on in his career exposed him to senior executives and managers.

”Alex Lee has been a valued Cigna client since 1992 and is a true leader in workforce wellness. Under Robert Vipperman’s leadership, Alex Lee is completely committed to employee health improvement and offers many of Cigna’s wellness and chronic condition management programs. Robert sees the power of integrating medical, dental, pharmacy and disability benefits through Cigna to deliver the best health care value to the company and its employees.”
– Charlie Pitts, Cigna’s president and general manager for the Carolinas

After a few years of coaching, his career path zigzagged when a coaching client—the Chief Marketing Officer of Best Buy Co.— asked, “Do you want to continue on as a scout for the Yankees, or do you want to put on a uniform, join a ‘single A’ ball club and actually get your hands dirty?”

Three weeks later, Vipperman joined Best Buy as Director of Human Resources (HR)—and never once looked back.

Big Company, Small-Town Values

Today, Vipperman leads all aspects of human capital development as SVP, HR and Innovation of Alex Lee, Inc., a Hickory, NC, food distributor and retail operator generating $3 billion in annual revenue. The privately

held family business, founded in 1931, owns Lowes’ Foods, a chain of grocery stores located throughout the Southeast, as well as Merchant Distributors Inc., a wholesaler supplying more than 600 independent grocery stores.“

I mean this in this best way: It’s a place characterized by a benign paternalism that you just don’t see anymore,” Vipperman said. “It is a multigenerational business that is headquartered in a relatively small town where you see your fellow employees face to face a lot. It is one of those rare places where the CEO genuinely has an open-door policy. I’ve never seen him turn down an employee meeting.”

From Executive Coach to A-Team Leader

Although his executive coaching days are now firmly behind him, Vipperman admits, “it’s hard to take the shrink out of me.” That said, he readily taps into his coaching experience to motivate his direct reports and team members. “I would never claim to be a born leader because I wasn’t. That was something I grew into.”

quote1 Breaking Through Current State Myopia

The common thread between his early coaching days and his present position is his desire to solve problems and help individuals understand themselves and thrive. Cultivating an ideal environment for creating “something that matters, something that lasts” is often a matter of alignment, so Vipperman is always asking: “Does the reality meet the rhetoric? Does our behavior line up with it?”

Vipperman was managing HR when his responsibilities expanded to include innovation. Because Alex Lee had to adapt to food industry consolidation trends and increased competition, a Senior Vice President of Innovation position was created so Vipperman could oversee and facilitate new ideas and methods for serving the company’s customers.


“A transformational leader, Robert’s capacity to collaborate and problem solve makes him an effective, strategic partner in the C-Suite at Alex Lee. He is a natural lead innovation at Alex Lee.”
– Bob Gormley, Account Director, Towers Watson

Innovation teams were created, and expectations set. A strategy and innovation firm called Strategos came in to train the teams. To decrease complacency and motivate, an annual innovation challenge was created for all of Alex Lee’s 10,000 employees and salaried managers were assigned related goals on their annual performance reviews.

“We don’t want to be an HR team that’s bureaucratic, that’s shuffling papers or just going through the motions,” Vipperman said. “My expectation is that we are all giving more than our job description. My job is to kick open the doors, remove roadblocks and get out of the way.”


One of the teams brainstormed a new business venture—the Hickory Steak company. Hickory Steak offers grilling meats obtained from Alex Lee’s meat processing plant and competes with mail order food companies such as Omaha Steak and the Kansas City Steak Co.

“You can buy food almost anywhere. Drugstores now have six aisles of groceries,” Vipperman noted. “For us now, the mantra is: ‘It’s got to be different and better.’”

Rachelle Nones is a freelance writer based in New York City, New York.

Photos by Carter McFall Paine


Robert's Key Partners:
Cigna (Healthcare) | Towers Watson (Benefits Consulting) | Corporate Executive Board (Research & Surveys) | Halogen Software (Performance Management Software) | ITC Group (Innovation Consulting) | Keas (Wellness Software) | RHR International (Executive Coaching) | Skillsoft (Online Learning)

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