The Innovation Engineer

Robert Vipperman’s unique dual role at Alex Lee—head of human resources and head of innovation—helps him bring a personal touch back to retail, all while leveraging new technology

Robert Vipperman, Head of HR and innovation at Alex Lee

Retailers across the country are feeling the economic burn from online giants like Amazon that can offer low prices without paying for a retail location and the staff to service it. What big online retailers lack, however, is the human touch. Alex Lee, a privately held company that owns the Lowes Foods grocery chain and Merchant Distributors Inc., a food wholesaler, is determined to modernize its business practices and focus on technological innovations without losing that personal touch—by making it the centerpiece of the company’s business strategy.

Robert Vipperman, head of both human resources and innovation at Alex Lee, is overseeing a plan that combines traditional customer service with the newest online technology. His unique role handling both the talent and innovation at Alex Lee puts him in the best position to oversee the development of the company’s newest strategy. Alex Lee is transforming its online grocery shopping—the Lowes Foods to Go program—a grocery pickup and delivery service that requires both innovative technology and personalized attention for customers.

Vipperman started as head of human resources at Alex Lee six years ago with a PhD in psychology and experience as an executive coach for the C-suite. He quickly learned the importance of leadership and how the individuals driving change at the top can have a real effect on the corporation’s health.

“One of the best things at Alex Lee, being a medium-sized company that’s privately held, is that you can propose something and make a difference,” Vipperman says. The company has deep roots going back eighty years but was struggling to keep up with changing technology and customer expectations. So Vipperman proposed a new focus on innovation. Now, he oversees the company’s innovation teams, small groups made up of employees from various departments who make time to develop specific new concepts and test them out.

“It started with setting the expectation that innovation mattered. One of the things we started doing in year one was setting an innovation goal for all management employees,” Vipperman says. That meant developing an idea that added new value to an existing product or service, along with the tools and training to get there. In the very first year, the innovation teams produced ideas that netted more than a million dollars in revenue and a million dollars in savings. One such innovation team is behind the Lowes Foods to Go, an online pickup and delivery service.

“When you’re a distributor, scale matters—and scale usually wins,” Vipperman admits. “But we have interpersonal relationships and the trust of consumers. It’s a very different game.” Lowes Foods to Go will offer a human-centered strategy. Customers will have a personal shopper—someone who knows their family, their needs, and their tastes—and can make shopping recommendations based on their personal knowledge of the individual customer.

“To a certain extent, this project is going back to the roots of deep personal connections,” Vipperman says. With the increasing use of online ordering, self-checkouts at grocery stores and even ordering food at a restaurant through a touch screen, retailers are losing the face-to-face contact that is the heart of the sales relationship. “You often order something through an iPad or computer. You don’t have to talk to anyone,” he says. “It’s actually kind of isolating and weird for the average American.”

“What we’re hoping to do is as simple and timeless as taking care of the person,” Vipperman says of the personalized shopping approach. After thorough customer insight research, the company came to the conclusion that very few of the people in retail or in service positions care about the customer to the extent that they are truly motivated to take care of the individual and help them make satisfying, informed choices. “When is the last time you genuinely thanked someone with real gratitude for being helpful? That’s what we’d like to produce.”

Another innovation team is working on revamping the wholesale arm of the business, Merchant Distributors, Inc. Members of this team are visiting different parts of the country as part of the discovery process to learn how to shift the company’s focus from supplying boxes of goods to supplying value-added services, such as consultations, to customers. “We are sending our people to learn what’s out there,” Vipperman says of the team’s travels to gather information on the best business practices.

A third component of innovation at Alex Lee is the annual Innovation Challenge, where employees compete by sharing ideas that could revamp or add to existing business services. “We’ve had individuals come up with new patented processes, new business lines, the works,” Vipperman says of the program. Most recently, this included an employee in the warehouse division who designed a fundamentally new process for picking products. With a small team and a supportive environment, the technology was launched on a very quick timeline.

Vipperman believes it is no coincidence that his role as head of human resources and innovation has led to successful change within the company’s business practices.
“Human resources has the levers that drive behavior, and that’s very helpful in driving innovation,” he says. “Human resources provides the tools and training for change, as well as the rewards for successful employees.”

Vipperman’s joint position also allows a bird’s-eye view of the company that aids in strategic planning. He believes other organizations could also benefit from an individual in a similar position. “It’s a great position for someone who loves strategy and wants to help implement it in a day-to-day, hands-on approach.”