Family Work Ethic — 50 Years of Lee Supply Company

We’ve all heard start-up stories that begin with the inspiring dream of one entrepreneur. But more often than not, family businesses are formed out of shared necessity. Lee Supply was founded when one unexpected decision left the entire family unemployed. Here's an excerpt of the remarkable story of the five decades that followed.

Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture
In January 2023, family-owned Lee Supply Company celebrated its 50th anniversary. Although the anniversary was marked with a celebration, the company sure didn’t start with one. The following excerpt is from their forthcoming book, Character is Destiny: 50 years of Lee Supply Company. 

Enter the conference room of Lee Supply Company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it’s likely that the first thing to catch your attention will be the solid walnut table, which takes up most of the room. Purchased by the Lees from a law firm that was going out of business, this prepossessing piece of furniture has for many years been the gathering place for the Lee family and other trusted friends and employees, who regularly assemble around it to discuss opportunities and challenges, weigh options, and ultimately make the decisions that establish and bolster the company and its future. Often, those doing the deciding are all family members; when that’s the case, the rule is that they all must agree on the same plan of action. Otherwise, it doesn’t happen.

The conferences around this table aren’t always about business. Other, more personal things have been revealed here by members of the family, including serious health issues and changes in marital status. In those times, the only consensus needed is one of mutual support and encouragement.

Around the corner and a few dozen yards to the right of this area is the break room, where several other, more modest kitchen tables sit, covered with plastic tablecloths. Among them is an early-American style table, constructed of maple and surrounded by matching chairs, that was once the breakfast table in Sid and Maxine Lee’s Tulsa home. It doesn’t look terribly important, but it is.Around it, a half-century ago, Sid, Maxine and their two sons, Dennis and Doug, made the decision that would change their lives, and those of the rest of the immediate Lee family, forever, as they decided then and there to strike out on their own with a new company.

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Brothers Doug and Dennis Lee sit at the same kitchen table where 50 years ago, along with their father, Sid, they decided to turn a tough break into a golden opportunity.

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.”

Lee Supply’s first location at 7 S. greenwood ave. in downtown Tulsa was just big enough to get them started in the supply business. a small warehouse and office space allowed the company to build its base before moving to its present location.

Circa 1981, a group of Lee employees pose on the dock of their new warehouse.

Against All Odds

Incorporated the very next day after the decision was made, Lee Supply has become the kind of success story that’s rare in this day and age—a family-owned industrial-supply company that has been able to withstand the wild roller-coaster highs and lows of the petroleum industry to not only persevere, but also prosper. Of all the industrial supply houses around town when Lee Supply came on the scene in early ’73, it’s the only one left standing. The company has grown to become the largest single-location industrial supply house in the United States and the oldest in Northeastern Oklahoma. 

What’s the secret to this longevity?

Maybe there are a couple of secrets. An old adage, attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, says that character is destiny, and the collective character of the Lee family, which shines through in the ways the company treats both its customers and its employees, surely is one important factor.

Another one can be symbolized by the two tables. One of those pieces of furniture originally came from a business, the other from a family, and the Lees have made business decisions and dealt with family matters around each one. Those two tables, their origins and uses, represent a family business in which family and business are inseparable, with the personal values, visions, and concerns of the Lee family intertwined with the values, visions, and concerns of Lee Supply Company. 

Gathered around the conference table is Lee Supply Company’s current leadership team:  Left to right, Denny, Jason, Dennis, Jan, and Damon Lee.

This article first appeared in Müllerhaus's publication Legacy Journey Quarterly. For information regarding any of the projects mentioned in this publication or to inquire about Müllerhaus Legacy or our services, please contact Ally Seifried at 918-747-0018 or
Kayloni Alexander
Director of Operations & Culture