No matter which generation of Lee is speaking, when talk turns to the values most prized by the company, the term “work ethic” invariably comes up. “We were raised to work,” said Doug Lee, who founded Lee Supply in partnership with his father, Sid, and older brother, Dennis. “Working had more emphasis than education. Not that education wasn’t important, but dad was not educated—other than streetwise.” He laughed. “But when you look at his family, at his mom and what they were, he did get an education. He educated us a lot of the same way.”
“It came down to the Lee attitude, the work ethic and the way we did things. We had the idea that we would survive no matter what happened.”
Sid Lee’s streetwise education was tested in January 1973 when Lee Supply was launched out of an unfortunate event that brought out the best of their family unity.
Denny and Doug had come to work with their father at a successful industrial supply company. All three were building what they thought would be a prosperous future.
Sid had worked at the company for well over two decades and was the vice president and office manager. He had worked out an arrangement to buy the company, but the arrangement was abruptly ended on January 15, 1973.
As Dennis recalled, “Dad had been pressing the owner to sell him the rest of it, and I guess the owner decided, ‘Well, I’m not going to sell it to him, so let’s just get rid of them’—‘them’ being Sid and my brother and me.”
As Dennis remembers it, “Sid came in and said, ‘We just got fired.’
“I said, ‘Wow. That’s a surprise.’”
“Yeah,” Sid said. “He told me I was fired, as well as you and your brother.”
We Would Survive
Which brings us to that little early-American kitchen table. Now sitting in the Lee Supply break room, it was at the time the breakfast table at Sid and Maxine’s house; a few hours after they’d been unceremoniously sacked, Sid, Dennis, and Doug, along with Maxine, gathered around it to consider their options.
It was, Dennis said, “Very sobering. We knew we had to do something, and I think the general idea was, ‘We don’t know anything else, so we really don’t have any other options. So let’s just start our own company and go from there.’”
“It came down to the Lee attitude, even then, the work ethic and the way we did things, that we had the idea that we would survive no matter what happened,” added Doug. “When we asked ourselves what we were going to do, it wasn’t even questioned that we’d start a company. We didn’t know exactly what to do, but in that not knowing, we decided we would do it. I don’t remember it being a long meeting. It was just, ‘Okay, we need to get the lawyer, the accountant, things like that.’ It just happened.”
Dennis and his wife, Jan, had a lot riding on the decision. Just four months before, Jan had left a good-paying job to stay home with their first child. “I was so naïve that I never thought it wasn’t going to work,” Jan said of the beginning months and years of Lee Supply. “I just thought, ‘We’re getting along.’ I never panicked. I never had a fear. I believed in Dennis, and I believed in the family. I believed it was going to work.”