Family behind Lee Valley Tools honoured for generations of retail achievements

Robin Lee
Lee Valley Tools president and CEO Robin Lee holds a copy of the Ottawa company’s first catalogue from 1978. (Photo by Caroline Phillips)

We can probably all think back to that sense of accomplishment we got in childhood after we created something with our own hands – even if it was nothing more than a lopsided clay ashtray that doubled as a peanut bowl.

“Everybody I talk to remembers coming home from school in Grade 3 and 4 and saying, ‘Look at what I made,’” says Robin Lee, president and CEO of Lee Valley Tools, an award-winning, Ottawa-based, Canadian-owned family business known internationally for its high-quality and hard-to-find woodworking and gardening tools, hardware and home products.

In this day and age of cheap and disposable appliances and electronics, there’s something to be said for honing a craft such as woodworking.

“As humans, we have opposable thumbs. That’s what’s allowed us to grab and hold tools; that’s really what has allowed us to evolve and develop, basically, to who we are,” says Lee, speaking at his company’s headquarters on Morrison Drive in the west end.

“Our business is about woodworking, but, in a much larger sense, it’s about doing things yourself, that pride you get from working with your hands and doing something creative.

“I don’t think there’s really a lot of satisfaction in defining yourself by the things that you’ve purchased.”

The Lee family was recently honoured at a gala dinner in Toronto with the prestigious Excellence in Retailing Lifetime Achievement Award. The Retail Council of Canada gives the award to a family or individual in retail who has shown outstanding business success and community service, and who has left an indelible mark on the industry through innovation and commitment to customers and employees.

“This business was built by a lot of good people; I just happened to be sitting in the chair when the award was being given,” Lee, 55, says rather modestly, considering he joined the business right out of university and has been officially running things for the past 13 years.

The company began in Ottawa as a mail-order business, selling do-it-yourself wood stoves. Lee’s father Leonard started the firm on a part-time basis in 1977. He was a public servant at the time and a former foreign trade commissioner with degrees in engineering and economics.

The following year, Leonard added specialized woodworking tools to his catalogue. Eventually, he left his government job to devote himself full-time to his business.

Entrepreneurial passion

Growing up without electricity or running water in a log cabin in rural Saskatchewan, Leonard knew the value of a dollar, honesty and self-reliance. His commitment to achieving his goals through hard work, along with his entrepreneurial success, were officially recognized when he was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2003.

When he died two years ago at age 77, he was fondly remembered by many for boldly pursuing his passion.

“That’s how Dad started this business – he followed what he enjoyed,” says Lee. “He wasn’t a master woodworker, but he enjoyed what he was doing, and he enjoyed tools.

“People who enjoy what they’re doing are inevitably successful, and they’re always happy.”

The multimillion-dollar company now runs retail stores across the country, with its 20th location slated to open in Laval, Que., this fall. It employs more than 1,000 people across North America and distributes to more than 90 countries.

About 450 of its employees are based in Ottawa, which is home to its main distribution and manufacturing facilities, machine shop and mail-order shipping department.

“We take a lot of pride in how much product we make right here in Ottawa."

“We take a lot of pride in how much product we make right here in Ottawa, and if we don’t make it in Ottawa, we make it in North America,” says Lee. “There’s nothing wrong with buying products from other places. It’s just that we’re very committed to domestic manufacturing.”

Despite being involved in all aspects of the business, Lee still gets his greatest enjoyment from dealing with customers.  

“Good retail is like performance art; the applause is in your sales. I really don’t care about the sales – I care about the validation, that people value what we do,” he says.

Lee Valley’s clients have been known to share photos of their completed woodworking projects with staff. Once, a customer pulled up into the parking lot to show off the canoe he had built by hand.

“That really to me is the inspiration, and it’s inspiring for the staff to be part of people’s ‘Look what I made’ moments,” Lee says.  

Lee Valley Tool prides itself on its reputation for high-quality products.

“Good products tend to be better-maintained, they tend to be used with purpose and they tend to stand the test of time,” says Lee.

The typical Lee Valley customer is a baby boomer with skills and interest to devote to woodworking. However, a growing base of customers includes makers and homeowners who skew younger.

“A lot of people tend to know us as, ‘My grandfather shops there’ or ‘My dad shops there,’ but we really want to be your son or daughter’s store,” says Lee. “We want to be everybody’s store, because I truly believe we have something to offer everybody.

“We’re focusing on designing courses to appeal to children and to people who are not our traditional customer. You don’t have to build a bombé chest; sometimes just hanging a shelf is enough.

“It’s about giving people that confidence, that ‘You know you can do this. It really isn’t that difficult, and it really doesn’t involve that many tools.’

“What we’re after is engaging somebody for life, not to sell them a big pile of woodworking tools.”

Five things to know about Robin Lee

  1. He grew up in the Westboro area and attended Broadview Public School. In Grade 7, he completed his first school woodworking project: a homemade lamp made with driftwood. He biked up to the Ottawa River to find the wood for his project and was successful in wiring it up. The lamp is still in use at his aunt and uncle’s cottage.
  2. His wife Lucie and their two adult children, Philippe and Annick, also work for the company.
  3. One of his pastimes is exploring North America in his RV. He has a soft spot for quirky little roadside towns.
  4. His favourite band is the indie-rock band The Decemberists from Portland, Ore.
  5. He’s on the board of the Early American Industries Association, a not-for-profit that focuses on the historical preservation of craft.