Robin Lee is the current President of Lee Valley Tools, a Canadian company that supplies a wide variety of woodworking, cooking, and gardening tools, along with hardware. In addition to the huge quantity of tools for which they act as a middleman, Lee Valley is famous in the woodworking world for its own line of tools that they design and manufacture to high standards in Canada, called Veritas, or “truth” in Latin. The company was founded by Robin’s father, Leonard Lee. Leonard grew up on a homestead with very limited means. He and his family had to make do with what they had in their work on the farm and the home. When Robin was young they lived on a farm, working with their hands and building things all the time. Leonard started Lee Valley to supply quality and traditional woodworking hand tools, which he could not find.
The Business Model
The company relies on selling high-quality products and creating a good relationship with the customer for the benefit of both parties. As a result, customers really respect the company and return to it time and time again. Leonard died this past year, but Robin has been running the company since 2002. As head of the company, Robin has to do a lot of administrative work. Still, he loves his job because of the culture present at Lee Valley. Employees are treated as family, the same as customers, and interacting with them is very enjoyable. The challenge of the job is creating a good product that allows a sense of trust to build between company, employee, and customer. As an organization so connected to the customer base, that relationship influences the creation and modification of tools. They listen to the customer base and act accordingly.
Creating a Tool
An idea for a tool stems from either this interaction and ears to the ground work, or from an inspiration lightbulb, or from a combination of the two. On average, a tool takes about 16 months to go from conception to fruition, with most of the work being done in-house. By doing the work this way, and not restricting themselves to an old design, Veritas has developed its own distinct style over the years that makes their tools instantly recognizable and leaves room for innovation. The values behind the company are what makes the tools Veritas, though. It is more important to satisfy the customer than focus on making a profit. By doing the former, the latter occurs naturally, albeit slowly for the most part. In doing the right thing for business, employee, and customer alike and rectifying mistakes, Lee Valley fulfills its responsibility to those dependents in the interest of stability and long-term viability.
Veritas is one of the premier names in woodworking tools, the other being Lie-Nielsen, which was started in a similar way at about the same time. The two companies produce a product line that has a lot of overlap, but their styles are very different. Lie-Nielsen tends to reproduce designs of old tools that are out of production (classical) compared to Veritas, which takes inspiration from old tools and then adds innovative features and materials (jazz). I asked Robin if there was competition between the two companies. In answer, he said that of course there is a little bit of competition because they both serve the woodworking hand tool market, but the styles they cater to are different, and in general woodworkers have some tools from each company. Robin actually uses some Lie-Nielsen tools in his shop.
Although he is a woodworker as well, Robin enjoys creating tools for others more. To him, it is the equivalent of being a rock star, with people all over the world creating beautiful objects with the tools that bear his family name.