1938 - 2016
Leonard Lee started life in a log cabin with no running water or electricity in Wadena, Saskatchewan and never forgot those humble roots. Len entered Royal Roads Military College in September 1958 and starred on the senior rugby team. An aspiring pilot, he was awarded the RCAF Association Award of Merit as the top RCAF cadet in his second year as well as the English prize. At RMC in the fall of 1960, he played football and focussed on his studies in economics.
Len was slated to be Cadet Wing Commander (CWC) for the 1961-62 year, however, a medical condition developed during training in the summer of 1961 prevented him from pursuing pilot training and the CWC position. That fall, he received an honourable discharge from the Regular Officer Training Plan.
Len then attended Queen’s University, graduating in 1963 with a B.Econ (Honours). After a short stint with the Combines Investigation Branch of the Federal Department of Justice, he joined the Department of Trade & Commerce as a Foreign Service Officer. He served four years in Chicago as Vice Consul and Assistant Trade Commissioner followed by two years as Trade Commissioner to Peru. Len worked with the federal government for a total of 16 years, and was a director of the Canadian Consumers Council and the National Dairy Council of Canada during that time.
In 1978, Len founded Lee Valley Tools Ltd., a Canadian woodworking and gardening tools mail-order business. The company filled a niche for high quality tools in Canada and beyond. In 2017, the business had 500 employees and 18 stores across Canada and made sales throughout the USA and more than a dozen other countries. Len built the company around three guiding principles – integrity, customer satisfaction and customer involvement. He empowered employees to address issues with customers as they saw fit.
In 1985, Len set up Veritas Tools Inc., a world leader in tool design and innovation, as the design and manufacturing arm of Lee Valley Tools. In 2017, it had 250 products and held 100 patents. Len also established Algrove Publishing Limited for the publication of quality woodworking literature, and Canica Design Inc., an innovative medical device company that specialized in designs for the mechanical manipulation of soft tissues, including cleft palates in infants. Len founded another small company, Chestnut Tools, where he loved to research new tools. He became known in the woodworking fraternity as the expert on tool sharpening after publishing his “bible” of the industry, The Complete Guide to Sharpening, which sold more than 100,000 copies world-wide.
Len Lee received the Popular Mechanics Design and Engineering Award in 1992 and an Honorary Doctorate from Carleton University in 1999. In 2003, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada for his success as an entrepreneur. In 2007, he received an Honorary Doctorate from the Royal Military College of Canada, and in 2011 an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Ottawa. Len is a recipient of the Queen’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals and, in 2014, he was inducted into the Hardware and Housewares Industry Hall of Fame.
Len was appointed Honorary Colonel of 14 Air Maintenance Squadron in 14 Wing, Greenwood, NS, in April 2008. There, he enjoyed time spent with the aircraft technicians.
Len was always very active in not-for-profit associations. A founding director of the Public Policy Forum, and its Secretary-Treasurer for the first 15 years, he also helped found the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, which became part of the Good Wood Alliance. He was a national director of the Nature Conservancy of Canada for five years, and it’s Vice-Chairman for two years. He was a founding director of the Collegium of Work and Learning, which later became the Learning Partnership. Len donated the honorariums from his many speaking engagements to charities, including the United Way and the hospital in his adopted hometown of Almonte, Ontario.
As family man, friend, and volunteer, Len illustrated exceptional qualities that contributed to his success as a businessman. A natural leader who took a keen interest in everyone he met, his optimism, honesty, and especially his sense of humour, were apparent throughout his life. He valued truth above all.
The company he started part-time from his kitchen table always stayed with him. When he entered the hospital in his final days, after a multi-year struggle with vascular dementia, Len took three items -- a tape measure, gloves and a Lee Valley Tools ball cap.
Len is survived by his wife, Lorraine, sons Robin and James, and four grandchildren.
Entrepreneur, Innovator, Business Leader, Volunteer, Philanthropist