As a former Army colonel, Frank Clepper is particularly aware of the more than 50,000 U.S. service members who have sustained eye trauma in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. And then there’s his youngest daughter, whose eyesight was threatened by a tumor.
Those were two driving reasons why he has accepted the job as president and chief executive of Envision, a Wichita-based nonprofit that serves the blind and visually impaired through a wide means, including rehabilitation services and employment. He was officially named to the position Tuesday and will assume his new job in February.
“I know what it’s like to sit in an emergency room and worry about your kid and how all that’s going to turn out,” said Clepper, 54, who will be leaving his job as chief operational officer for Delta Dental of Kansas.
Sophie Clepper is now a healthy 5-year-old with good eyesight, although she still has to have regular checkups. When she was about 4 months old, doctors discovered she had a hemangioma tumor in her right eye. The tumor was growing aggressively, threatening her other eye.
Three risky steroid injections in the tumor didn’t help. That was followed by six months of chemotherapy, which did work.
“It was a journey,” Clepper said. “The good news is everything turned out well.”
But such experiences can send a parent looking for ways to help others with sight problems.
For Clepper, that opportunity came after Envision’s position opened up earlier this year when long-time CEO Linda Merrill-Parman retired for health reasons.
At Envision, he’ll head an organization that employs nearly 500 people. It is the nation’s second-leading employer of blind or visually impaired people, behind North Carolina’s LC Industries, and serves 1,500 patients out of its rehabilitation center at 610 N. Main.
“We needed a well-rounded individual,” said Sam Williams, Envision’s board chairman. “Frank brought that to the table.”
Clepper didn’t serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, but his ties to the military have given him a keen awareness for those injured in combat.
He said working at Envision will allow him to “direct efforts toward a group of individuals specifically dear to my heart – those who have sacrificed far more than I in service to their country.”
A West Point graduate who retired in 2000 after 22 years in the Army, the East Tennessee native spent five years working for UBS Financial Services in New York City. He had breakfast at the World Trade Center the morning before the terrorist attack destroyed the towers on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Timing is everything,” Clepper said.
A job and his wife’s home state brought him to Kansas in 2005. He moved to Wichita to work for hotel entrepreneur Jack DeBoer’s Value Place Property Management as senior vice president of operations and chief operating officer. His wife, Jo, is from Wamego.
“That was the draw to come back to Kansas,” Clepper said.
He joined Delta Dental in 2007 as vice president of operations and became chief operational officer in 2009.
Founded in 1933 as an agency to employ the blind, Envision has grown into a complex organization with a mission that includes providing a child-development center, low-vision rehab, public education on eyesight disease prevention and professional education.
It helps fund those efforts through a five-year-old foundation, which expects to raise $750,000 this year, and from two businesses it operates.
One industry employs mostly blind or visually impaired people to make plastic bags, while the other business operates retail stores at 16 military installations across the country. Products made by Envision’s employees and other agencies that serve the blind and visually impaired are sold at the stores.
But sales of Envision’s products were down 22 percent for the first five months of fiscal year 2011 over a year ago, primarily because the federal government – Envision’s main customer – has cut back on purchases, Envision spokeswoman Mary Shannon said.
At the same time, the need is growing for agencies that serve the blind and visually impaired. Vision loss is expected to double by 2020 because of the aging baby-boom population, Shannon said.
So Clepper will step in at a challenging time.
“Envision is a unique organization and in a good position to help the general community,” he said. “My job is to grow this business and extend the outreach. We have to do that smartly, but we also have to make sure we get the most bang for the buck in terms of using those resources.”
Clepper will replace Kent Wilson, who has been serving as interim CEO. Wilson will return to his role as chief financial officer.