Lee Valley Tools founder Leonard Lee dies

Leonard Lee, the founder of popular woodworking and gardening tool retailer Lee Valley Tools, died Thursday morning at the age of 77.

'He was just this beacon that kept you going in the right direction'

Leonard Lee loved to design and sell tools, his son Robin said. "He was very proud of it." (Facebook)

Leonard Lee, the founder of popular Ottawa woodworking and gardening tool retailer Lee Valley Tools, died Thursday morning at the age of 77.

Lee, born on July 17, 1938, in Wadena, Sask., started the company in 1978 after a career in the Canadian Foreign Service and serving as the executive director for the Canadian Consumer Council and National Dairy Council of Canada.

His son Robin Lee said his father's business sense came from his humble beginnings growing up in a log cabin with a dirt floor.

"He was a very honest man and a very generous man," Robin said. "I think a lot of that stemmed from his upbringing in rural Saskatchewan, where you shared with your neighbours and you couldn't get along in a small town without telling the truth. I think that sort of foundation served him very well in his business career."

Approach to business was 'do right by people'

Leonard Lee in a story from the CBC Archives about his medical tool company getting a major contract to supply scalpels in the United States. (CBC Archives)
Jason Tasse, chief of operations, says Lee brought a personal touch to his leadership and his employees are mourning his death.

"The day-to-day operation took a back seat today to a tremendous amount of reflection and story-sharing about all the great times with Mr. Lee," Tasse said. "He was a big advocate of management by walking around, getting to know people, delivering birthday cards on their birthday."

Tasse who has worked at Lee Valley for 21 years, said Lee had a passion for tools and the people who worked for him.

"He had this refreshing approach to business which is do right by people, but it's not to make money at all costs," Tasse said.

"There's so much pressure in business to drive that way, yet he was just this beacon that kept you going in the right direction."

Followed his own set of values, son said

Robin Lee said his father decided to start his own business when he became frustrated with the bureaucracy of his job in the public service, though he valued the friends he made there.

"He wanted to have the freedom to follow what he believed. That's what drove him from an entrepreneurial standpoint. He didn't want to have to answer necessarily to anybody else. He wanted to be able to answer to his own set of principles and values."

He said that contributed to his managing style, giving his employees the room to learn from their mistakes and feel like they were part owners of the business. It was an approach that extended to Robin, who is now the president of the company.

He remembers developing names for products with his dad and the joy his father took from creating new products.

Robin said Lee loved developing new tools and products.

"It's the business equivalent of being a rock star. How well your product sells, how well it's received by the public, reflects directly on the efforts you've put into developing and manufacturing something and he was very proud of it," he said.

Published first catalogue in 1978

Lee Valley Tools initially sold cast iron stove parts by mail order from a rented basement in a strip mall in Ottawa and published its first catalogue in the fall of 1978.

The company expanded to retail locations across Canada and established Veritas Tools, a manufacturing division.

He also founded Canica Design, a medical tool company, in 1998, as well as Algrove Publishing.

Lee was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 2003.

Lee had vascular dementia and his condition deteriorated rapidly over the last several months. Robin said his father was still working in December and still in his own home until May. He was hospitalized after a short stay in a seniors residence.

"Clearly it's a sad day for all of us but for many of us we're feeling a sense of a relief that it was a very graceful ending to a very terrible disease," Robin said.