Lee Valley's flagship store, Ottawa, Ontario

A company built on innovation and customer service.

by Ellis Walentine

    I recently traveled to Ottawa, Ontario, Canada's capital city and home of Lee Valley Tools, the mail-order retailer specializing in woodworking and gardening tools. It is also the parent company of Veritas®, its R&D and manufacturing subsidiary, known for its innovative woodworking hand-tool designs.
    Ever since Leonard Lee founded the company twenty-six years ago, Lee Valley Tools has grown steadily. Today, it is a thriving, vertically-integrated enterprise, employing almost a thousand people – about half of them in the Ottawa area alone – and occupying a sprawling complex of offices, manufacturing facilities and warehouses.

Main offices of Lee Valley Tools

Warehouse after hours.

    The heart of Lee Valley's operations is their mail-order business, with primary distribution facilities in Ottawa and a U.S. trans-shipment facility in nearby Ogdensburg, NY. Customer orders are expedited by a computerized order fulfillment system, which logs orders and generates "pick lists" and shipping documents, and tracks the progress of each order through the system. Sophisticated inventory control assures that over 98% of all orders are in stock and ready for shipment at a given moment.

CNC turret mill working on plane parts.
    Lee Valley manufactures most of their Veritas® line of tools right there in Ottawa. Everyone from the top executives on down are actively on the lookout for clever ideas and problems that need solving. Then, Lee Valley's staff of trained industrial designers, armed with the latest engineering CAD systems, draws, prototypes and tests the new designs and figures out how they can be made at a price point that customers are willing to pay. I saw several new devices and utensils making their way through the development process. Naturally, I was sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you that in a few months, we'll be seeing some exciting new items in the pages of Lee Valley's upcoming catalogs.
CNC machine making plane parts.
    Once new products are officially given the nod for production, the Lee Valley & Veritas® manufacturing and assembly divisions take over. Production engineers map out the production sequence, which may involve castings, extrusions and many different kinds of machined components. Large machine shops, brimming with CNC mills, lathes and other precision machinery, steadily turn out production batches of planes, marking gauges and many more of the growing family of Veritas® products.

Assembling bullnose rabbet planes.

    Quality control is evident at every step of the manufacturing process. First-off parts are checked with sensitive instruments for accuracy before the rest of the batch is machined. Inspectors and production employees alike are empowered to spot and reject any parts that don't measure up to tolerances. A lot of the parts in the reject bins looked pretty darned good to me but failed to pass muster for infractions as minor as a tiny surface imperfection. Apparently, it makes the most sense to catch the problems at the earliest possible stage of the production process. The rejected parts, plus all the brass, cast iron and steel shavings generated in the production process are recycled.
Assembling the new three in one marking gauges.
    Many Veritas® tools require final assembly, and there are assembly stations located throughout the manufacturing facilities. Some of the parts are quite small and delicate. Technicians use cardboard egg crates to organize and count parts for assembly.

Assembling mini bevel gauges.

Bird's eye view of Ottawa store.
    In addition to their mail-order business, Lee Valley has eleven retail stores across Canada, including their striking new flagship store (see lead photo) adjacent to company headquarters near downtown Ottawa. The retail stores do a booming business and it's easy to understand why. All the company's merchandise is cleverly displayed in a setting that invites the visitor to look and play and marvel at all the nifty stuff. When I visited their Ottawa store on a Thursday afternoon, dozens of customers were contentedly browsing the woodworking and gardening sections or sitting in comfortable upholstered chairs reading books from the store's extensive library of woodworking and gardening books. At the rear of the store was a teaching shop, all set up for a hands-on sharpening seminar that evening. The portable equipment and teaching aids used in each of the carefully planned seminar programs are shuttled on company trucks back and forth among the eleven stores, so that the programs are consistent across all stores.

Parts bins at Ottawa store.

    Behind the large service counter, the store's enormous stockroom was neat as a pin. Every product, down to the last nut and bolt, was carefully organized by part number for efficient order picking, with all the accompanying literature and component parts. The few out-of-stock items were clearly listed on a large white board behind the counter, so that customers wouldn't be disappointed if their items weren't available that day.

Robin Lee, President of Lee Valley Tools.
    Customer service is one of the hallmarks of Lee Valley's business. A team of multi-lingual customer service representatives handles any problems or order inquiries that might arise. All customer service agents must complete a training program, where they are taught how to go the extra mile to make sure the customer is completely satisfied. A quick search of our messageboards will turn up plenty of evidence of customer satisfaction with Lee Valley products and service. According to Robin Lee, company president, this kind of service costs a lot, but it more than pays for itself in the form of customer loyalty and company reputation.

. . . Ellis Walentine

[EDITOR'S NOTE: We will be visiting other major WoodCentral sponsors as time and resources permit. Meanwhile we cordially invite you to patronize all our sponsors. Tell them WoodCentral sent you!]



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