Lee Valley Tools founder dies

One of the Ottawa region’s most well-known local businessmen has died.

Leonard Lee was the founder of several successful enterprises, including Lee Valley Tools, Canica Design and Algrove Publishing. Lee Valley Tools announced the news of his death on its website on Thursday.

A native of Wadena, Sask., where he was born in 1938, Mr. Lee founded the tool supplier that bears his name in 1978. What began as a home-based, mail-order business to sell woodworking tools eventually grew into the largest company of its kind in the world.

According to the company’s website, Mr. Lee studied civil engineering at Royal Military College in Kingston before going to Royal Roads Military College in Victoria. He later earned a bachelor of arts degree in economics from Queen’s University and worked for the federal government.

In an interview with OBJ in 2006, Mr. Lee said he launched Lee Valley Tools as an escape from his civil service job.

“I was very unhappy with my job with the government and getting very depressed,” he said.

He found solace in woodworking but was often unable to track down the specialized hand tools he needed for his pastime.

“I thought others must be in a similar situation, so I did an analysis of the market,” Mr. Lee told OBJ. “At that time, the North American mail-order market was about $10 million, so I thought the Canadian market would be $1 million.”

After nearly going broke during a postal strike in 1981, Lee Valley Tools bounced back. The company eventually branched into manufacturing and grew to a chain of stores across Canada with annual sales of $100 million.

“Whenever a manufacturer wouldn’t modify something or we couldn’t find what we wanted, we did it,” Mr. Lee said. “That’s how we got into manufacturing.”

That spirit of innovation also led to the creation of Algrove Publishing, which he launched when he decided “there were a lot of books I wanted to print, not all about woodworking.”

One of the company’s bestsellers was The Complete Guide to Sharpening, which was written by the founder himself. It went on to sell more than 100,000 copies.

“Customers kept coming to me to ask how to sharpen tools, so I started to study the subject,” Mr. Lee once said. “It’s still a surprise that it has sold so many copies.”

He later founded Canica Design, a medical tool company that developed cutting-edge medical tools for cleft palates and carpel tunnel surgery, in 1998.

A member of the Order of Canada for his success as an entrepreneur, Mr. Lee said he couldn’t have done it without the support of his wife Lorraine.

“Suddenly cutting off your total income and having your mortgage payments go way up is pretty scary,” he said, referring to the fact he increased the mortgage on his family home to fund his tool company.

“When you go into business, the support of your spouse is more important than the support of your banker.”

Over the years, Mr. Lee received honorary degrees from Carleton University, Royal Military College, the University of Ottawa and the Telfer School of Management. He was also a recipient of the Queen's Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.