Leonard Lee was the ultimate craftsman.
He turned a passion for woodworking into Lee Valley Tools, a successful mail-order catalogue business that now includes 17 stores across Canada, catering to those who build furniture, love gardening or are just looking for quirky gifts.
Lee, 77, died last week of vascular dementia. The company he started part-time from his kitchen table always stayed with him. When he headed to the hospital in his final days, he took three items — a tape measure, gloves and a Lee Valley Tools ball cap.
Born in Wadena, Sask., during the Depression, Lee was raised in a log cabin with no running water or electricity, never forgetting his humble roots.
It permeated his decision-making in business, always focused on integrity.
“If you are a good person, can learn and have good judgment, you can do anything,” said son Robin in an interview from the Almonte, Ont., farm where his parents lived in retirement, looking at a barn that his father built from scratch.
New reports suggested Lee was frustrated by the bureaucratic nature of government — pointing to battle over reimbursement for a $ 600 bill to buy clothes for member of a Japanese trade delegation whose luggage had been lost.
The business has evolved over the years — where customers can still order from a print catalogue that is mailed, or online, or in person shopping at retail outlets. The company believes retail is any contact with customers.
“Tools that are wielded with purpose and intent perform better. That’s really what we’re about,” said Robin. “It’s really easy to sell anything. It’s a lot more difficult to keep somebody’s trust over a long period of time.
“Dad was always brilliant where it came to products, but I feel his brilliance is the culture he has created for the business,” he said.
Lee Valley’s profit-sharing program ensures that all employees have a stake in the company, where 25 per cent of pre-tax profits are evenly split. After two years of employment, all staff, regardless of seniority or title receives the same equal share.
“In great years, there was a great profit share, and in modest years, there was modest profit share,” said Jason Tasse, chief operating officer, who started as a seasonal employee picking and packing items at the Ottawa warehouse.
“A big part of the reason I stayed is the personal connection. It is Mr. Lee,” said Tasse, noting “absolutely everyone refers to him as Mr. Lee.”
“He was my closest confidant. I would go to him for advice, and whenever I got into trouble, I would ask ‘What do I do?’ Tell the truth was always the advice.”
Those were principles Lee lived by, Ehrenworth said, pointing to a class-action lawsuit Lee filed against Canada Post over a policy where commercial shippers were charged if their calculations were under, but didn’t receive credit for any overpayments.
The settlement totalled $ 5.05 million shared by nearly 55,000 commercial customers — with the post office moving to change its practices.
“If you had the ability to fight something that was unjust, you had to,” said Robin said of his father’s philosophy. “It was the right thing to do.”
“I hope you’ll reform afterward, and just do work that you can be excited about,” he said during a 2011 convocation speech at the University of Ottawa when he received an honorary degree.
He often spoke of corporate culture, shaping one that ensures employees are treated fairly with authority to match their responsibility such as Lee Valley’s policy that gives staff the power to refund a product for any reason they feel is fair.
Not just Lee Valley
This company, housed at Lee Valley Tools headquarters in Ottawa, is the heart of research and development for new products as well as actual manufacturing of Lee Valley’s goods.
“Dad was ?a big believer of manufacturing as a strong foundation for a healthy economy,” said Robin Lee, president and CEO of the company, which has 130 employees. “Canada has always been traditionally hewers of wood and haulers of water, but we can manufacture with the best of them.”
He had accumulated a reference library of old books on a variety of technical and general subjects. In recent years, the company has run into some challenges with changes to U.S. copyright law. It continues to publish.
When a doctor came to Lee, asking him about how to prevent rust on a woodcarving knife that he had adapted into a scalpel, Lee saw potential in the medical-tool business.
He formed Canica Design, setting up shop on Mill St. in Almonte, Ont., near the family farm. Canica successfully developed tools for use in cleft palate surgery on newborns, and stabilizing tools to keep incisions open during surgery, but it was not financially successful.
It was eventually sold to Barrie, Ont.-based Southmedic, which continues to make the products. “It was one of the things he was most proud of and disappointed by,” said Robin, noting barriers in the medical procurement system were difficult to overcome.
L.G. Lee & Sons
When Leonard Lee was heading into full-time retirement after the sale of Canica Design, his sons Robin and James opened a small, country-style business in Almonte.
Robin said his father would regularly drop into the store to check on things and chat with customers, visiting as recently as last December.
Public Policy Forum
When Sheldon Ehrenworth founded the Public Policy Forum back in the 1980s, he quickly asked Leonard Lee, a friend from their days in government, to sign on.
The non-profit is dedicated to finding ways to make government more effective, and Lee quickly agreed to join the board and held the position of treasurer for about a decade.
“Invariably, it would be, ‘Leonard Lee is on your board? You know Leonard Lee?’ ” he said.