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The sharpest device within the shed: How Lee Valley constructed a cult-like following

The sharpest device within the shed: How Lee Valley constructed a cult-like following

2023-07-03 21:07:20

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alexa mazzarello/The Globe and Mail

Robin Lee is aware of what you’re pondering as he plucks an merchandise from the shelf of his family-owned retailer in suburban Ottawa: This product appears a bit, nicely, silly.

The CEO of Lee Valley Instruments goes one step additional: “Stupidest factor ever” is how he describes his first impression of the Wingman, a plastic dragonfly on a wire that’s designed to be clipped to your hat, wobbling absurdly overhead and purportedly repelling deer flies and horseflies. It appears fishy; it appears to be like ridiculous.

However Lee Valley will promote it to you (for $13.90 plus tax) as a result of it’s one among a number of oddball devices whose surprising utility the retailer swears by. Its catalogue—extremely anticipated by many purchasers for its articulate copy and stunning array of merchandise—describes the Wingman as “a easy, efficient different to the arm-flailing methodology of shooing away” the pests, assuring readers it was “examined in Ontario cottage nation.” Lee is the unnamed tester; his is the cottage.

The Wingman is an ideal instance of how Lee Valley has developed over its 45 years, branching out from its origins as a mail-order purveyor of woodworking instruments. The corporate nonetheless sells hundreds of these instruments, a lot of which it manufactures by means of its Veritas model, a cornerstone of the enterprise. However as time has handed, the product assortment has expanded—into different work-with-your-hands classes similar to gardening and cooking, but additionally in some stunning methods. Should you’re available in the market for a box-maker’s plow aircraft or a mortise chisel, Lee Valley has it. Additionally, there’s a doohickey for squeezing toothpaste out of its tube.

On paper, this could not work.

“Should you walked in chilly off the road, you’d go, ‘What the heck are these individuals about?’” Lee acknowledges.

Lee Valley is a component critical device store—catering to the type of of us who admire having the selection of greater than two dozen types of sharpening stone—half high-end cooking and gardening retailer, and half random potpourri of SkyMall-ish merchandise. In a lot of its product classes, it’s not the largest, the quickest or the most cost effective possibility. And it’s positively dwarfed by rivals like Dwelling Depot, Canadian Tire and Amazon.

However Lee Valley has constructed itself a distinct segment, with 18 shops throughout the nation, an e-commerce operation that accounts for roughly 50% of its gross sales, and greater than $100 million in annual income from the retail operations alone, not counting its manufacturing enterprise.

Vital challenges nonetheless lie forward, nonetheless. Lee Valley’s management is evaluating the way forward for its retailer community, which has gaps—together with in Canada’s largest metropolis, the place skyrocketing rents pressured the closure of two of its three places up to now couple of years. The corporate should make sizable investments to modernize its manufacturing operations. And it’s grappling with methods to stay related, not simply as individuals’s buying habits change, however because it seeks to enchantment to newer, greener clients who might discover the array of instruments extra intimidating than inspiring.

“We’re an editor for the shopper,” Lee says, referring each to how the corporate selects merchandise and the tone it makes use of to suggest them to the precise customers. He references the pleasant neighbour on the ‘90s sitcom Dwelling Enchancment, who disbursed recommendation and a little bit of philosophy to Tim “The Instrument Man” Taylor over the fence. “We’re Wilson.”

Lee Valley sells roughly 24,000 merchandise—and plenty of of them must go muster with Robin Lee himself, whether or not they come from the corporate’s personal tool-making operation or from different producers. The retailer provides new gadgets each couple of weeks, which the product crew pitches to Lee in a course of the corporate’s president and chief working officer, Jason Tasse, compares to Dragons’ Den.

Lee, 60, has spent most of his life refining his understanding of what works for Lee Valley. In 1976, his mother and father, Leonard and Lorraine, determined to strive promoting cast-iron range kits out of their residence in Ottawa’s Westboro neighbourhood. For Leonard, a civil servant trying to strike out on his personal, it was a take a look at run to gauge the viability of a mail-order enterprise. Robin, then nonetheless an adolescent, would grind the castings to take away extra bits of metallic after which pack the stoves for delivery.

Lee Valley was launched in 1978 as a listing promoting woodworking instruments. Leonard acquired his begin by partnering with Garrett Wade, a New York–primarily based purveyor of comparable catalogues. Proprietor Garry Chinn shared paintings for print and wrote to his product suppliers guaranteeing the fledgeling firm’s invoices. (Mr. Chinn nonetheless owns a small proportion of Lee Valley and sits on the advisory board.)

However from the beginning, the operation was a household affair. At any time when somebody known as the corporate quantity, a cellphone within the Lee kitchen rang. After the 1981 postal strike nearly put them out of enterprise, demonstrating the need of brick-and-mortar shops, Robin constructed the very first showroom. (It was his summer season job.) “The showroom mannequin type of mirrored {the catalogue},” says Tasse, a 25-year veteran of the corporate who began out working within the warehouse. It stays the identical right now: Shops largely show product samples, which clients should purchase by filling out an order—both on paper, by cell phone or at a pc station. A staffer then fetches their gadgets from the again.

As Lee Valley grew, Leonard Lee needed to be extra concerned within the design of its instruments and to include clients’ suggestions. The corporate launched a producing arm, now known as Veritas, in 1985, which operates in a facility simply down the highway from its Ottawa retailer and makes about 1,200 instruments, {hardware} and gardening merchandise each for Lee Valley shops and for export to greater than 90 international locations. About one-quarter of the merchandise the shops promote are manufactured in-house. Veritas launches new gadgets on a regular basis; Robin Lee estimates there are at present greater than 200 merchandise within the queue ready to be launched, together with a brand new set of bench guidelines, a hacking knife, a dowelling jig and a noticed for slicing the fret slots on a guitar neck. “It’s a really tight connection between the retail arm and the manufacturing,” he says. “Let’s say you purchase an electrical drill from Dwelling Depot, and also you return and say, ‘Right here’s what’s mistaken with it.’ The drill producer by no means hears it. There’s no efficient suggestions loop…Whether or not they outsource or they do it internally, I feel that’s a very good technique for a lot of retailers—to haven’t only a home model, to not simply put your identify on someone else’s product, however to do the design work.”

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NO FLIES ON HIM: Robin Lee personally examined the Wingman for its pest-shooing powers

In terms of merchandise sourced from outdoors the corporate—whether or not it’s a brand new backyard pail or a unusual present merchandise—workers should persuade Lee that the product solves an issue, represents good worth and high quality, and is one thing consumers can’t discover in every single place. (The Wingman is an exception to the latter rule: Amazon, Canadian Tire and numerous outdoor-supply shops can even promote you this backcountry fascinator.)

Nonetheless, it’s a fragile steadiness between fixing issues and needing a device for completely every part. Whereas the serendipity of the product choice will be entertaining, it additionally begs the query: Does one really want tongs particularly for fishing toast out of the toaster? Or a paper aircraft launcher? Or a reflective sheet to heat your rear finish whereas sitting round a campfire?

“We would like you utilizing these items,” Lee says. “These are instruments which might be going to be good. They’ve a utility and a price, which we’ll clarify to you. And also you resolve whether or not it applies to you or not.”

There’s a narrative behind the rasp. In fact there may be—for a listing firm like Lee Valley that prides itself on good copy, there’s at all times a narrative to be instructed. The microplane that does an actual quantity in your lemon zest and your parmesan cheese, wouldn’t it, began off as a surgical device for shaving bone (appetizing!) and for woodworking. After Robin Lee discovered it at a commerce present in Chicago within the Eighties, his mom picked it up, figuring it’d do the trick for zesting oranges. It turned a kitchen favorite. {The catalogue} instructed the story—with Lorraine making an look as “a Lee Valley woodworker’s spouse”—and shortly the producer known as to ask what the heck was occurring: Lee Valley was promoting tens of hundreds of the issues.

The tone of the Lee Valley catalogue started with Leonard Lee, whose salesmanship included a tongue-in-cheek blurb casting the consumer of a long-handled trowel because the “lord of the manor.” Robin is explicit about carrying on that legacy and nonetheless edits each little bit of copy earlier than it hits the web page. “I ban phrases,” he says. (Current outcasts that have been hammered into semantic saturation with overuse: “distinctive” and “important.”)

The voice Lee Valley has cultivated over greater than 4 many years is deliberate: educated, not know-it-all. “Conservative however modest recommendation,” Tasse says.

“But in addition to be literate and never speak right down to individuals,” Lee says.

The individuals Lee Valley speaks to are altering. The corporate’s core clients like working with their fingers. Administration has even given them personas: Earl, an previous store trainer, and Heather, a middle-aged gardener. However its newer clients match a distinct profile. “We’ve acquired to be extra about instructing gateway expertise to totally different clients—not the 50-year-old woodworker, however someone who by no means took store class in highschool or grade college, as most individuals don’t,” Lee says. “Now, a newbie isn’t 16 years previous. A newbie is 35 or 40.”

Lee Valley has responded by focusing extra on inspiring learners, together with with an advert marketing campaign that emphasised failure as a part of the educational course of. It has additionally launched “Make it Your self” packing containers impressed by meal kits, giving clients all of the instruments and supplies to check out carving a picket spoon, for instance, or constructing a fowl feeder.

There are different methods Lee Valley is in search of to modernize. A couple of years in the past, it started overhauling its digital operations, together with making a serious funding in its web site. E-commerce turned a lifeline when the pandemic hit and digital gross sales turned every part. However Lee Valley nonetheless took a serious blow, with retailer closures eliminating half its gross sales on the worst potential time. It had simply positioned all its Christmas orders in January and February, and located itself in a money crunch, pressured to put off 7% of its workforce throughout the retail and manufacturing operations. “We simply had the rug pulled out from below us. And while you go to the financial institution, they are saying, ‘Retail—that’s going to be an enormous drawback. We don’t wish to spend money on you,’” Lee says. “It’s as if the earlier 40 years didn’t rely.”

The corporate was in a position to get better by leaning on digital gross sales and benefitted enormously when locked-down Canadians started spending cash on residence enchancment tasks and hobbies to remain busy. Having at all times performed retailer pickups for on-line orders—and with workers already totally educated in retrieving product from the again—Lee Valley was in a position to pivot shortly to curbside service, staying closed out of warning (or opening by appointment solely) for a while even after {hardware} shops have been categorized as important retail.

These on-line gross sales, and clients’ loyalty, “saved our bacon,” Lee says. For a time, although, he feared the second era operating Lee Valley is perhaps its final. “We have been nearer than anyone is aware of to closing the doorways completely,” he says.

Lee Valley doesn’t work like different corporations. Leonard Lee used to tout the truth that over the many years, the enterprise had by no means had layoffs. Due to the pandemic, that’s not true. “It was powerful,” Robin Lee says. “However there was some studying in there, too.”

For instance, administration realized that its resistance to layoffs wasn’t at all times a very good factor. Whereas staff admire loyalty, Tasse says, some have been pissed off by the retailer’s tendency to carry on even to non-performers. With staffing ranges now again as much as pre-pandemic norms—about 1,000 staff—Lee and his crew are engaged on managing their individuals otherwise. Meaning shedding the much less formal strategy of the previous and introducing extra profession growth discussions; skip-level conferences the place workers have the prospect to fulfill with managers above their direct supervisor; and higher succession planning throughout roles, to make sure they’re figuring out expertise to take over when others depart. That additionally means higher file conserving in order that long-time workers don’t take all their institutional data with them into retirement.

Among the previous concepts nonetheless apply, nonetheless. The founder at all times had a coverage that the highest-paid worker at Lee Valley would by no means earn greater than 10 occasions the wage of the lowest-paid individual on workers, a rule that continues to be in place right now. To place that in context, the 100 highest-paid CEOs in Canada took residence 243 occasions the pay of the common Canadian employee in 2021, based on analysis by the Canadian Centre for Coverage Options—a spot that has widened significantly in recent times.

Different core tenets have modified. Lee Valley used to distribute one-quarter of its pre-tax revenue among the many workers. Throughout his time as a warehouse employee, Tasse remembers that if a employee dropped one thing, the joke was to name out, “revenue share”—as in, the price of that damaged merchandise is popping out of our pockets. Because the enterprise acquired greater, although, that message acquired misplaced, the executives say. They made the choice to extend core salaries slightly than pay out bonuses tagged to income, which left workers not understanding how a lot they might depend on. (Lee says there have been some lean years when he fudged the quantity to make it look higher.)

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“We’re now monitoring progress to a dwelling wage,” Tasse says, including the corporate pays a premium over minimal wage. It was about 30%, however that has narrowed barely as provinces have raised their minimal wage ranges. Nonetheless, Lee provides, “We don’t need it to be slightly bit above minimal; we would like it to be considerably above.” These efforts have helped the corporate construct a workforce crammed with long-timers. “I hand out 25-year certificates and awards each week,” he says.

With the turbulence of the pandemic behind it, Lee Valley is evaluating what its future ought to appear to be. An enormous a part of that’s its retailer community. “Once they began again within the ‘70s, the market was not as urbanized,” says Wendy Evans, a retail professional and president of Evans & Co. Consultants. “Because the market has developed, they’ll must rethink their location technique.”

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Lots of Lee Valley’s shops are in suburban, and in some circumstances industrial, areas. The idea was the shopper would drive to them, in order that they went the place the lease was low-cost. Now, Lee says, the shopper is altering, and the retailer is analyzing the place there are gaps. Considered one of them is in Toronto, the place administration is trying exhausting for brand new places after shuttering two shops. (The final one left is within the suburb of Vaughan—an amazing stopping level for individuals on their solution to cottage nation, however hardly a lure for downtowners.)

As they appear to extra central places, shops will doubtless grow to be smaller, with a extra selective variety of gadgets. But when clients need countless selection, they’re most likely selecting up their telephones slightly than driving to Lee Valley anyway—Lee himself says he turned to Amazon just lately when he wanted a particular measurement of bolt. It took a number of clicks, the value was good, and he had it the subsequent day.

“The trick is, why do individuals wish to come to our retailer?” he says. It is perhaps to take a woodworking class, to get that neighbourly Wilson recommendation, or to get a kick from shopping by means of bug catchers, an old-timey mariner’s climate glass or etched-steel plates for measuring butter. One factor is evident: “It’s not going to be for the bolt.”

It’s not simply the shops Lee Valley is making an attempt to modernize. Subsequent door to its Ottawa headquarters, within the Veritas machine store, a senior manufacturing worker named Rob is standing subsequent to a bright-yellow robotic arm, coaching it to choose up tenon cutters and put them right into a lathe. “I’ve labored on tools like this since 1993, however that is the primary time I’m utilizing it with a robotic,” Rob says, including the coaching course of is usually a little bit of a problem. “This man has a little bit of an perspective. He’ll solely do one factor—or she’s going to solely do… Anyway, they do their job very nicely.”

Investing in this type of effectivity is a precedence for Veritas. These tenon cutters are regularly on again order, Lee says, and that is precisely the type of unskilled, repetitive job he needs to automate, releasing up people for duties that require judgment and suppleness. “Persevering with to make extra merchandise in Canada, and persevering with to make use of extra individuals, not fewer—that’s crucial,” he says.

Lee Valley can be saddled with equipment that’s now 25 or 30 years previous and on its final legs—and operating at half the pace of recent fashions. The corporate has poured $12 million into the machine store up to now three years and just lately transformed a constructing subsequent door right into a second machine store to accommodate newer tools and rising operations. “Our large, audacious purpose is over 100 years of sustainable progress,” Lee says.

However to get to a century, Lee must make sure the enterprise efficiently modifications fingers from one era to the subsequent. The corporate has already performed it as soon as. Robin Lee took over as CEO in 2002, after greater than 20 years in quite a lot of roles (interrupted solely by his time on the College of Waterloo, the place he earned a level in programs design engineering and labored as a co-op pupil at IBM). As expertise turned an even bigger a part of the enterprise—”Dad was not an web man”—and Leonard determined he needed to focus extra on the medical devices firm he launched in 1998, he determined handy over the reins. Leonard remained concerned in designing new instruments, and he additionally ran a ironmongery shop within the city of Almonte, Ont., as vascular dementia decreased the work he might tackle. He died in 2016. (Lorraine nonetheless lives on their 75-acre unfold, slicing the grass and driving the tractors on the age of 84. Do-it-yourselfing clearly runs within the household.)

Lee stepped into the CEO position with an enormous array of expertise throughout the corporate, and he has a background in product design and power growth his youngsters don’t have. “However they are going to be expert at different issues,” he says. The Lees are very a lot a presence at Lee Valley: Robin’s spouse, Lucie Robitaille, is chief buyer officer. Daughter Annick Robitaille-Lee is divisional merchandising supervisor accountable for gardening, and son Philippe Robitaille-Lee is advertising and marketing content material supervisor. (Tasse, 49, additionally labored carefully with the senior Mr. Lee and has been round so lengthy that Robin generally jokingly calls him “yet another Lee.”)

What Lee Valley faces within the coming years is one thing many Canadian corporations are grappling with: Six out of 10 companies will change fingers within the subsequent decade as boomers retire, and conserving household companies within the household is getting more and more tough. Lee Valley just lately acquired two U.S. device producers when the second era didn’t wish to take over.

Robin Lee says he’s dedicated to passing the household enterprise on to the third era. “We might promote it one million occasions over, however I wouldn’t wish to watch what it turned,” he says, including that he receives gives usually. “I might see XYZ accounting agency coming in right here and saying, ‘Minimize this and this, and alter this,’ and kill the golden goose.”

And he’s not stepping away any time quickly—Lee jokes that his retirement plan is Freedom 85. “It’s not about cash; it’s about your life and what you get pleasure from doing,” he says. “Additionally, when your identify is on the constructing, it issues what occurs below your identify.”

He smiles.

“There’s slightly little bit of a lure there.”

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