Leonard Lee, C.M.
While building his cottage in Canada in the early 70s, Leonard Lee needed tools that weren’t readily available. He tells us, “I couldn’t get a slick. I couldn’t get a broad axe. I couldn’t even get a decent draw knife.” This experience, along with careful research, common sense, and a love of woodworking, resulted in the creation of Lee Valley Tools, one of the world’s finest suppliers of woodworking tools.
Lee Valley Tools first catalogue
Lee Valley Tools first product flyer
Before Lee Valley Tools
Leonard was born in Wadena, Saskatchewan (near Algrove). His father was a farmer and built the log house that Leonard grew up in. In his early years he attended a one room grade school and later a one room high school. After graduating from university, he joined the Canadian Foreign Service. There he would assist Canadian companies that were doing business outside the country. He was first stationed in Chicago and later in Lima, Peru. The job left him unfulfilled and, by age 39, he was looking seriously into his career options. Leonard remembers, “Woodworking was my hobby, and I knew that there were a lot of woodworking tools needed by woodworkers.” So, he applied the marketing research skills he had developed in the Canadian Foreign Service and began taking a critical look at the woodworking market in Canada. “It looked like the American market for woodworking and hand tools, by mail order, was about $10 million. At that time I estimated the Canadian market would be about one million and, if we could capture the Canadian mail order market we would have a company that could employ about 10 people.”
Starting Lee Valley
Leonard Lee remained at his job while he formed the company, Lee Valley Tools.
The company’s name combined Leonard Lee’s last name, the Ottawa Valley, where he lived, and the products he intended to offer. He says, “Originally all we sold was a cast-iron, barrel stove kit . . . You want a tough job! But it worked. We actually didn’t lose any money. Of course, during that first year, customers kept asking, “How come you’re selling stoves, and you’re called Lee Valley Tools?” I said, “Well, you’re going to have to wait. It was taking time to collect the variety and the quality of tools that I had in mind.” In August 1978, Leonard Lee quit his job. In October, he and Lorraine, his wife, cut and pasted together their first catalogue on their dining room table. It featured 950 items. Leonard had just placed an ad on the back cover of Harrowsmith. It was a quick and unexpected decision to place the ad, but the page was offered at a discounted price because an advertiser had just dropped out, and the magazine was ready to go to press. “We weren’t entirely ready for something like that, but we pulled together an ad. We showed a black walnut tool chest, with the top open, and tools in it. All the ad said was: ‘For our 78 page catalogue of fine woodworking tools, send one dollar to this address’. We ended up getting 2,200 one-dollar bills. It was an unbelievable response for us, and jump-started our entire business. After that initial mailing our client list grew, mostly by word of mouth.”
Early Days of Lee Valley
“I had no business experience. I’d only been in farming and government, but business is really just common sense. One thing I learned in government, is that the atmosphere at work makes a huge difference in the productivity of the individuals. In the government, you have lots of responsibility and no authority.
This is why so many government workers have ulcers. They’re trying to do a good job but they really don’t have any authority. In contrast, employees at Lee Valley have authority. When you walk into any one of our stores, the first person you talk to has the right to refund your money. No matter what you spent, they have the right to refund it. There is no big manual telling them what to do.
We just tell them, do exactly what you would do for a friend. This isn’t complex at all. Most people have very common standards on what they do for a friend.
“In those early days, the most frequently asked question was: ‘How do I sharpen this?’ or ‘How do I sharpen that?’ At the time, I didn’t know any more than the average customer, so I spent a lot of time looking into sharpening – I had to learn a lot about it because so many people were asking me.” In response to those questions Leonard wrote a book on sharpening. “I just figured that it would be better to answer all those sharpening questions at once.”
Woodworking, Then and Now
“Woodworking, as a hobby, is more popular now than ever before. The reason being that, in the last 25 years, there have been fewer and fewer jobs that depend on the labour of your hands. Most jobs only require mental activity. So people, many of whom grew up with a father who made a living by being a plumber, an electrician, a farmer, a lumberjack, or whatever, want a hobby where they can build things with their hands. Most people do. There are very few people who are satisfied living a life where they do nothing that requires manual dexterity. One of the reasons that woodworking is so popular is that you can actually see the result of an evening’s work. It isn’t all in bits and bytes.”
“If there has been a change in woodworking over the last 25 years, it’s that people can buy tools that are consistently beyond their skill level. Today, people have a lot more money than they have time, and so they try to substitute equipment for skill. But remember, power tools are just hand tools working at speed. Somewhere along the way you have to learn the basics of woodworking: how wood reacts to the cutting process, how wood reacts to changes in humidity, and all those other things.”
“Cabinetmakers today can’t afford to use only hand tools. They have to use power. But they know the principles of wood, and how to work with it and, as a result, they use the power tools differently. For example, a good cabinetmaker will invariably feed work into his table saw slower than the average hobbyist. He knows what the saw is doing and that, if he feeds it too quickly, his cuts won’t be as true and he will get more tear out.”
The Business of Woodworking
“One of the difficulties in Canada, in recent years, is that we’re not training people. The skilled trades are in terrible shape. The good news is that, for anyone who does take up woodworking, the market for cabinetmakers is going to be better as time goes by.”
“I think custom cabinet making will become as popular in Canada as it is in the U.S. If you’re a custom cabinetmaker in the U.S. you can make a decent living.
“However, if someone does want to make a living in woodworking it will have to be high-end woodworking. They’re going to have to be doing some teaching as well. Teaching gets your name known among potential buyers, providing a source of revenue. I don’t think teaching is a necessity, but it certainly helps, especially the high-end woodworkers. I guess it’s because, after a student woodworker has tried to make a table, and not done so well, they make good customers.”
“Overall, I think that if somebody’s going into woodworking to make a living, it’s not because it’s an easy way to get rich, it’s because of a love of the craft.”
Member of the Order of Canada
Lee Valley Tools is now 25 years old, employs 695 people, and offers a mail order catalogue with over 5000 items. In addition to being a successful entrepreneur, Leonard Lee has volunteered generously in the community, serving on the Cabinetmaking Advisory Committee for Algonquin College and on the Advisory Board to the Faculty of Business at the University of Ottawa.
He has retired from the day-to-day operations of Lee Valley and has started a new company, Canica Design, which designs and develops innovative surgical tools.
Recently, Leonard was awarded the Order of Canada, hence the C.M. after his name. For more information on the Order of Canada: http://www.gg.ca/document.aspx?id=72