June 18, 2024 5:15 AM
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In Memoriam: Robert Vallee Sr.

by Kerstan Szczepanski and Chris Kappes

Mr. Robert Vallee Sr

November 4th, 1928 – May 11th, 2024


Gracious, kind, funny, leader, and mentor. These are just a few words that describe Mr. Robert Vallee, Sr., whose passing leaves a profound legacy. As the former owner and CEO of George P. Johnson (GPJ), he is remembered with great love and respect for his visionary approach to business. His motto, “make no small plans,” embodied his belief in connecting people and expanding GPJ beyond traditional automotive exhibiting into innovative marketing activations. This strategic shift propelled GPJ to become the world’s leading experience marketing agency.

Vallee embraced this transformation with unwavering enthusiasm. One notable example was his memorable “Are we going to date or get married?” proposition to IBM in the late 90s, securing the largest global account consolidation RFP. This landmark win was a testament to his bold approach and the enduring partnership that continues to thrive today.

Jeff Rutchik, former Executive VP at GPJ, recalls Vallee’s impactful mentorship. “He would often say to me, ‘Shoot an arrow in the sky and see where it lands.’ He balanced risk and reward beautifully and knew how to get the best out of his people. He was a great mentor, and I was very fortunate to have known him.” Rutchik attributes much of his leadership philosophy to Vallee’s guidance. Vallee’s secret lay in his wholehearted commitment to both projects and people.

“He understood people; he could elicit a commitment to greatness,” Rutchik reflects. Vallee was not only a brilliant businessman but also a great showman who inspired others to be their best. Rutchik fondly remembers a company meeting where Vallee began with a rousing speech themed “it’s not what the company can do for you, but what you can do for the company.” At the end of his speech, he removed his jacket to reveal the GPJ logo on the back of his crisp, white shirt, symbolizing unity and pride. The room erupted in applause, and Vallee had cemented the sense of collective identity and purpose.

Robert Vallee Sr. met Virginia, the love of his life, in the 10th grade at Grosse Pointe High School. His service in Korea, where he was honorably discharged with distinction, earning nine battle ribbons and the Combat Infantryman Badge in 1953, instilled in him lessons of leadership that would shape his life.

Starting at GPJ as a truck washer, Vallee climbed through the ranks of sales and management, eventually becoming CEO and owner, in a dazzling career spanning over 50 years. He lived a rich and fulfilling life, reaching the age of 95 and sharing 67 years with Virginia before her passing. Robert Vallee, Sr. embodied a life lived “all in,” leaving an indelible mark on those who had the privilege to know him.

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