Preserving History, Creating the Future

Alex Lee Inc.’s Robert Vipperman tackles the challenges of honoring the company’s legacy while continually evolving toward the future

Robert Vipperman, Alex Lee Inc.

As the chief human resources officer and senior vice president of innovation for Alex Lee Inc., Robert Vipperman describes his job as helping build the skills and capabilities that the company needs to compete in the twenty-first century. Although the corporation, based in Hickory, North Carolina, was founded in 1931, it is a modern organization immersed in the world of e-commerce.

“The corporate culture is an interesting balance of trying to be respectful of the traditions of an eighty-seven-year-old company and still being passionate about creating the future instead of being a victim of it,” Vipperman says. “We lean heavily on our innovation teams, which are made up of our best and brightest folks, to continue to push and update our strategies.”

Authentic & Unleashed: a human capital plan

As the parent company of wholesale grocery store distributor Merchants Distributors and supermarket chain Lowes Foods LLC, the company employs about eleven thousand people. Vipperman is in charge of the HR strategy throughout the company. One innovative strategy is called Authentic and Unleashed, a human capital plan that directs Alex Lee’s approach to human resources and culture.

A thirty-person team took part in working on Authentic and Unleashed for eight months. Its three components include: Growth is the Only Option; Food, Family, and Fun; and Our Work, Your Life.

The program has led to new initiatives as well, such as Third Thursdays, an event where team members leave work early to socialize together. The company has also revised and relaxed the employee dress code. All employees can participate in the new Alex Lee Career Hub, which provides tools, training, and planning that help team members grow their own careers. High-potential employees now find themselves more frequently rotating roles to drive development.

“The strategic architecture of Authentic and Unleashed has guided us to implement specific tactical policies that are meant to make our employees more engaged,” Vipperman says. “It’s important to remember that culture building is its own stream of work. It can’t be left on autopilot. It needs to be nourished every single day.”

Talent retention strategy

Attracting and retaining talent is also a priority for Vipperman. What first attracted Vipperman to the company in 2008 was the fact that it was family-owned and operated and that it has a strong commitment to its employees, customers, and suppliers. The benefits package at Alex Lee is also competitive and includes a fully funded, defined-benefit pension plan. Plus, employees also have the option to enroll in the PeerFit wellness program, which provides access to free workout classes and personal trainers.

“Alex Lee is a company that truly cares about the human being,” he says. “When making decisions, we think about whether it is the right thing to do, versus if it is just the most profitable or the least expensive.”

He says the corporate headquarters are undergoing renovations to help attract talent too. The building’s second floor is being converted into an open floor plan, and there will be a break room with vintage video games and space to unwind. Technology is part of the redesign plan, too, with touch screens in every conference room, noise cancellation technology, and other audiovisual resources.

“We are absolutely concerned about the physical work environment and how that affects productivity and employee morale,” Vipperman says. “We are taking a 1970s style building and making it reflective of the history of the place with details like exposed brick walls. But there will also be a heavy emphasis on cutting-edge technology.”

How to foster continuous innovation

To that end, innovation is one of the core values at Alex Lee. Vipperman oversees twelve- to twenty-four-person innovation teams who work to solve various company challenges. The teams stay motivated by participating in annual innovation competitions and Shark Tank-style venture pitch sessions.

“Our employees and customers are always changing,” Vipperman says. “We know that we have to keep evolving to keep up with them. We stay innovative by giving employees the tools, training, and technology that they need to contribute.”

In order to help employees contribute, Vipperman relies on what he calls his strengths-based leadership skills. He believes that people develop quickly when they focus on their passions, interests, and talents. In fact, all salaried employees at Alex Lee are asked to read the book Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, and take the corresponding assessment. Vipperman also stays plugged into the needs of his team by having scheduled biweekly meetings and an open-door policy.

“It is much more effective to lean into what people love to do instead of trying to make them a little less bad at what they hate to do,” Vipperman says. “We all know each other’s strengths. In fact, mine are posted on my door. We want it to be part of the daily dialogue. It factors into how we choose the makeup of our teams.”

Outside of work, Vipperman has been practicing martial arts with his stepson for a decade. He says the principles that are fundamental to his hobby transfer into his role at Alex Lee.

“Martial arts has taught me to always be a student,” Vipperman says. “At the corporate or executive level, you don’t have all of the answers. Everyone has something to teach you. It is crucial that we as leaders listen to our employees, especially those who are on the front lines of the business.”

Lowes Foods To Go

The Lowes Foods supermarket chain was founded in 1954 and has more than one hundred stores throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. It sets itself apart from the competition by featuring local suppliers and unconventional shopping experiences. In 1997, Lowes Foods launched its personal shopper-assisted grocery service, Lowes Foods To Go. Customers set up an online shopping profile and professionally trained personal shoppers fulfill orders for in-store pickup or home delivery. The website’s Quick Reorder feature gives users access to their in-store and online purchase history to make it easy to create shopping lists. 

“The Lowes Food To Go program was started twenty years ago, which was relatively early in terms of online grocery ordering,” says Robert Vipperman, CHRO, SVP of innovation. “In the last decade or so, it has come pretty far. You can now order your groceries on your smartphone. When you return to the website, it remembers what you ordered in the past and makes suggestions for things you might want going forward. It is all about trying to meet our guests in their busy lives with exactly what they want. We strive to make the grocery shopping experience as convenient and quick as possible.”

Photo: Sean Busher

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