Well, MsDebbieP is at it again! Adding to her shop tours and inspections are visits to companies that support woodworkers!
Mr. Lee, heading the family business that was first started by his father Leonard Lee, carries on the family vision of providing quality customer service by “doing what is right” and by “making people happy”. This underlying goal can be found intertwined in every part of the business – from tool design, to staffing, to store policies. Everything is done with the customer in mind.
One of the key benefits of being a family-owned business, says Mr. Lee, is that they can base decisions on the customer’s needs rather than on profit. This focus is perhaps best exemplified through their rebate policy. Right now, Lee Valley is in the process of writing cheques to customers who have, in the past three months, purchased items that are now going down in price. Did the customer request this refund? No. Did they know the discount was coming? No. One day, they will just find a cheque waiting for them in the mail. I can only imagine that it would feel like winning the lottery. Now THAT is customer service!
Lee Valley began 30 years ago, here in Ontario, Canada, with Leonard Lee selling wood stove kits via mail order. This venture was immediately a success and has grown since into the woodworking and gardening business that we know today, with stores located across Canada plus the online ordering.
Robin Lee has had his hands in the business since the beginning. His job began with sanding, polishing, and packing the stove kits and then helping his mother get the orders to the post office. Today, he has done almost every job within the company and is the self-proclaimed “second best picker” in the store.
Mr. Lee and his family get lots of practice filling orders as they send their Ottawa store employees home every Christmas Eve that the store is open and then take care of the store’s customers personally. (Yes, again, that would be exceptional customer service!)
Most of us are more familiar with the mail order part of their business than the stores themselves. The mail order component is a major part of their business and Mr. Lee says that 50% of this is with Canadians and 50% is world-wide, with most of that coming from the U.S. The internet has opened the doors to buying and selling around the world. There really are no limits.
The world may be one big store, but there are differences with the customers, according to Mr. Lee. For example, Australian wood is much harder than in most other countries and so the tools they use have different requirements (for example: a higher bevel angle) and in the U.K. space is limited and so you rarely find the home-based shops that you find in North America. Woodworkers there use hand tools more and do more work in marquetry and the such.
The commonality amongst woodworkers is that they are “nice people” (which in turn makes them nice customers) and they, for the most part, follow a similar path in their woodworking journey.
Mr. Lee sees entry-level woodworkers frequently building up their shops, increasing their selection of tools. Then, as they develop their own style, their favourite woods, techniques, and products, they find that the tool use becomes refined. For example, after years of collecting, a woodworker may have over 20 different chisels but actually only uses four of them. As their experience grows, they start to develop favourites.
And what is Robin Lee’s favourite tool? Why his Makita Sliding Compound Saw LS1011 of course! He also has an old chisel that he has had forever and some tools that had belonged to his father-in-law that are very special to him. For Mr. Lee, “a favourite tool is one that you have a connection with”. It has a history and you develop a familiarity with it and, over time, an emotional response.
And what does he like making with his favourite tools? “Sawdust.” As a member of the Research & Development Team and a tool tester, Mr. Lee spends many hours making wood shavings. He spends so much time testing tools that he finds that, in his spare time, he rarely ends up in his shop. In fact, he has a wall unit in the works that has seen several anniversaries!
Lee Valley is always adding to and improving their line of Veritas tools. They currently have five new planes coming out in September. There is a router plane, two squirrel-handled planes, a plow plane, and their 30th Anniversary Special. They also have more in the plans for the new year. Included in the things to watch for is a family of planes that have an adjustable fence.
For their anniversary special, the development team has come up with a premium plane that was created “with no limits”. Typically, a Veritas tool focuses on quality and function first, over appearance. But this time, everything was a priority. The sky was the limit! The result was a yet-to-be-seen beauty that is currently sitting in a velvet bag in Mr. Lee’s office.
Mr. Lee has delayed the showing of this prized tool because he wants to make sure that it will fit the customers’ needs. The high standards of quality and appearance come at a price and there may need to be some compromises made in order for it to be available to customers at a reasonable cost. We will just have to wait and see how this unfolds. In the meantime, the masterpiece remains in the velvet bag.
[I had the privilege of being shown the treasure and I could hardly contain my excitement…]
[Hey….. there isn’t a plane inside this little bag!!!! You are such a tease! I guess I’ll just have to wait, like everyone else!]
Thanks to Robin Lee for his picture, to Jenn Dietrich (Canadian Film Crew) for the MsDebbieP picture and to Douglas Bordner for the photo construction)
When asked what else the future holds for the company, Mr. Lee said that they shall continue to strive to improve on quality and functionality, as well as make education a priority. Over the years there has been a decline in woodworking and people need to see that they can build things themselves.
Education is already a part of Lee Valley, with a variety of courses offered. The woodworking for women courses and the courses for children are always well-received. Here again we see the underlying character of Lee Valley shine through: these courses are non-profit. Once the costs are covered, the rest is donated to charities.
TIPS TO THE LUMBERJOCKS
When asked for any other tidbits that he’d like to pass along to the LumberJocks, Mr. Lee quickly responded, “Don’t be shy about giving feedback”. Not only does the company welcome feedback, they desire it. They want to hear “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. They want to hear what works and what doesn’t work; they want to hear what you and I want and need in order to do our woodworking.
Also, Mr. Lee hopes that we are free with information about errors that we make, sharing our learning experiences with others. Just as we learn from our own “mistakes”, so do others. People not only need to know that they aren’t the only ones who have measured twice and still cut something wrong but they also need to learn about what not to do.
It was indeed a pleasure to spend some time talking with Mr. Lee. He is an inspiration not only on a business level but on a personal one as well. The family honour and integrity that is the cornerstone of the Lee Valley business clearly is a part of the person as well.
And so, I’d like to thank Mr. Lee for his time, for his vision, and for the continued support to woodworkers around the world. And now, I’m going shopping!
-- ~ Debbie, Canada (http://www.execulink.com/~yohan)