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Lee Valley 40 Years
 
 
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With the hope of starting a woodworking tool retail business, Leonard Lee began by first selling a product that some may deem an unusual choice – a barrel stove kit. To him, however, it was something that was very familiar. He attended a one-room grade school where a barrel stove, unshielded, burning poplar cordwood, was the only source of heat during the cold winters in Algrove, Saskatchewan.
 
Mr. Lee (second from left with hands in pockets) in front of the one-room grade school.
 
Growing up in a log cabin with no electricity or running water, Mr. Lee and his brothers learned to be resourceful. Under the guidance of their carpenter and farmer father, they built everything from granaries to barns to chicken coops. "Even my primitive [farm] training was of substantial benefit to me later in life," Mr. Lee said in a 2012 speech. "I was able to convert my hobby of woodworking into a business."

Employed by the federal government for many years, Mr. Lee decided to look into other career options at the age of 39. "When you do work you like, you will be a happier person," he said in another of his speeches. "Always choose job content over salary. You can be creative in work you like."

So, he applied some of the marketing research skills he had obtained while working in the Canadian Foreign Service to critically look at the Canadian woodworking market. He decided to test that market by selling barrel stove kits in rural weeklies. "You want a tough job? But it worked," he said in an interview with Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement.
 
Mr. Lee in front of a completed barrel stove.
 
With the help of his family, he started selling Lee Valley's first product – the barrel stove kit. The kits were designed for use with a heavy-gauge 45-gallon barrel "to make a wood stove to heat your house, workshop, machine shed or cabin", according to one of the original advertisements. Properly charged and dampened, it would burn efficiently for 8 to 12 hours. The majority of the kit parts were cast by Findlay Foundry Ltd., known for its quality in this field, based in Carleton Place, Ontario (just west of Ottawa).

Three kits were offered and any of them could be assembled "in an evening by a novice using the instruction sheet", according to the original order form. Customers could opt to purchase the basic kit, but the basic kit with an ash guard was recommended for use where occasional sparks from an open damper would be hazardous and “for people who like to rock back on their chair with their feet on the ash guard and stare into the fire”. The full flat-top kit included the basic kit, an ash guard and two 6” x 24” shelves for “people who might want to melt snow in a tub, keep a glue pot warm in the workshop, or rock back on their chair with their feet on the ash guard and have the coffee pot or mulled wine handy”.
 
An original order form that outlines Lee Valley's guarantee.
 
Each kit came with Lee Valley's guarantee – forever on defects, 21 days for any reason (later extended to 90 days), return postage or shipping fees included. An excellent guarantee was one of Mr. Lee's founding philosophies for the business.

"I'd only been in farming and government," Mr. Lee explained to Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. "But business is really just common sense." He attested to the fact that just about everything you need to know in business you learned at your mother's knee. This included honesty, never betraying your principles, and, more important, never justifying what you do by the principles of your competitors, keeping your word, being loyal, treating others (customers, employees and suppliers) the way you want to be treated and doing what is instinctive, not what is the result of cunning calculation.

Forty years on, these values continue to serve the company well.
 
 


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