Talking to Robin Lee
Robin Lee is President of Lee Valley and Veritas Tools* and visited Brisbane in January, 2017 where he met up with Wood Review Editor Linda Nathan for a long chat over coffee, during which she asked him some questions...
AWR: Reputations don’t come much higher than that of your father Leonard Lee who sadly passed away last year. We know him as the founder of Lee Valley, Veritas Tools, a medical tool company, a publishing company and probably much more. Many words of praise were spoken on his passing. Can you tell us what it was about your father that inspired such respect?
RL: ‘To understand how dad had an impact as big as he did, you have to understand his roots. He grew up on a homestead in Saskatchewan, and if you were going to survive on a homestead you had to work together with an entire community. It was a very sort of socialistic existence – you had to look out for your neighbours and your neighbours would look out for you.
‘He lived in a log building that his father built. My grandmother was one of the founders of an early socialist cooperative and Dad had a very strong social conscience. One of the things we have [from him] written down in our company values is: “treat people with respect, as if they were your friend, which also means tell them if they are being unreasonable, be honest”.’
AWR: The byline for Veritas Tools is ‘Innovation in Tools’. Where does the drive to innovate come from? Some of the traditional designs are pretty good…
RL: ‘Absolutely, but there is opportunity with changes in manufacturing and changes in materials to take a look at previous products and say: Can we make a change? Is there something that’s not just different, but change it in a positive way? And sometimes the answer is no.
‘With Veritas we have a number of rules that we operate around. It must be domestic manufacture; for us that means in Canada or the US. Product has got to have country of origin: Canada or US. It has to be innovative. We will have to have done the design and there has to be an improvement, design or material change but we have to further the state of the art. Thirdly we have to open it up for distribution.’
AWR: But you’re always bringing out new tools and you have an R&D department and that’s their function. Do you sometimes say to yourselves: what’ll we come up with next?
RL: ‘Well, that’s the trick. I often say we build with our ears. We’re also a retail company – we deal with so many customers a day we can listen to what they like and don’t like with a tool and that gives us a tremendous advantage in terms of product development.
‘We have the opportunity to drill in to why the customer returned it, was it a value problem? Was it accuracy, or was it an ergonomic issue? It’s very important to us to continually improve. I feel there’s an intellectual honesty to what we’re trying to do. We’re not just trying to make for change’s sake. What we are trying to do is have an editorial take on the tools.’
AWR: How do decide to go ahead and manufacture a design? Do you just crunch the numbers?
RL: ‘You’d think it would be a lot more planned than it actually is. There are three main ways that we come up with new tools. We have planned product development. We’ll work on a series of planes. There’s serendipity, when literally that light bulb goes off and you come up with a need for a product and you solve that product. That’s the second. The third is a reaction to a market change. We lose a supplier [for example] Record tools gets sold and shut down and there’s a gap to fill.’
AWR: How does Veritas compare with, or at least differentiate itself from, other high quality tool manufacturers?
RL: ‘The inevitable comparison between Lie Nielsen and us often comes up. Tom makes fabulous products but I often say: “He’s classical, and we’re jazz”. Ultimately it’s good for the customer to have a choice. When we go to a trade show with Lie Nielsen we find both of our sales are higher than when the other one is not there. There is a philosophy behind the designs and there’s actually very little overlap.’
AWR: In recent years, in North America in particular, there has been a flowering of toolmakers designing and making very individualistic hand tools. What do think about that?
RL: ‘I love it. We directly or indirectly support most of them. There are people in Australia, in America, in the UK and in some cases we actually steer our product development away from what they’re doing. We say [to ourselves] ‘do something different, that someone else isn’t doing, have your own philosophy, have your own take.
‘A lot of smaller manufacturers are doing well because they have a relationship with the people they’re selling to. It’s like when people are buying food they want to buy local. They want to know how their food’s grown. With toolmaking [they] can talk to the maker and know what their values are. I’m not buying a marking knife, I’m buying (that maker’s) marking knife. I’m buying his philosophy.’
AWR: Do you have any advice for people starting out as toolmakers?
RL: ‘Pay yourself first. Just because you love doing something, that’s a hobby. If you want to make it a business you have to pay yourself fairly.’
AWR: Does that mean you have to charge fairly too, back yourself so to speak?
RL: ‘You really do. And I struggle with that. I fight with our manufacturing guys and say, “Can we get the price a bit lower?”.
‘For a startup there’s that tendency to try and keep your price too low and to undervalue your own skills and that’s a tremendous pressure, and it’s very difficult to do, to actually charge what your time is worth.
‘The second real difficulty is when you go from being a one-person shop to suddenly employing other people. That creates a completely different set of pressures and expectations. [Again] the most important thing is to pay yourself.’
AWR: What in your opinion is the state of woodworking? What are the trends?
RL: ‘Craft I feel is in resurgence. It’s that need to work with your hands. Culinary shows, renovations – woodworking is part of the resurgence of craft. But is it fine woodworking? No. When I went to school we did metalworking, woodworking, forging. None of that exists now in Canada. But people are now discovering a lot of these manual skills in their 20s and 30s. The entry points to craft are different to previous generations and they’re no longer gender specific.’
AWR: What’s an average day at the office look like for Robin Lee?
RL: ‘I’m into the office by 7am in the morning. That gives me an hour and hour and half to myself and then there’s meetings until 2pm. All the new products, whether we source it or produce it, go through me. I like to say that we edit products for our customers and that I’m the editor-in-chief. I’ve got the last thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
‘Having said that, not everything you do has to make a profit. There’s a lot of products that are important to do because there’s a need. My job is also about people. That’s my job. I “own” culture. There’s a lot of talking and discussion.’
AWR: Robin, you head a company with a workforce of around 1000 people. How come you look so relaxed and have time to chat?
RL: ‘The secret is to enjoy what you’re doing. People who enjoy what they’re doing are more successful. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. That’s where dad was successful, he picked something he enjoyed doing.’
* Lee Valley and Veritas Tools in Canada were founded in 1978 by Robin Lee's father, Leonard Lee. Lee Valley is the retail arm of the business and offers a large range of tools and consumables for woodworking, home and gardening use. It employs around 850 people and on a very busy day can process up to 10,000 mail and in-store orders. Veritas Tools, with a team of 150, manufacture high quality hand tools and accessories for woodworkers. Over a million individual components are produced for approximately 1000 tools on offer. Veritas Tools are sold in every continent of the world.
More information from www.leevalley.com