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January 8, 2024 5 To Watch

As third-generation CEO of family-owned Lee Co., Marietta Lee eyes growth in space industry, other sectors

HBJ PHOTO | STEVE LASCHEVER Marietta Lee stands in one of The Lee Co.’s manufacturing facilities at the company’s Westbrook headquarters.
Marietta S. Lee
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More than 20 years after joining her family’s manufacturing business as an assistant facilities manager, Marietta S. Lee became CEO of The Lee Company in 2023, representing the third generation to lead the organization.

Now Lee has her sights set on continuing to grow the 75-year-old business, which makes miniature precision fluid control products used in the aerospace, medical and scientific, printing and other industries.

Additionally, Lee is taking on more of a statewide leadership role. In December, she was elected vice chair of the Connecticut Business & Industry Association’s board of directors, a position that will allow her to help shape pro-business policies at the state Capitol.

Lee is the granddaughter of company founder Leighton Lee II, who established the business in 1948. The Lee Co. traces its roots back to Space Race-era technology development, when it supplied parts that kept the oxygen supply of astronauts safe while they walked on the moon during missions between 1969 and 1972.

Today, Lee Co. has three sites in Westbrook and Essex, occupying more than 1 million square feet of manufacturing and corporate office space. It employs more than 1,100 people.

Aerospace is Lee Co.’s largest market, but it also makes parts for cars, trucks and medical equipment.

For example, it manufactures check, shut-off and pressure-relief valves used in commercial jets. It also makes plugs designed to form a permanent, leak-tight seal in hydraulic systems.

The company declined to disclose its annual sales or other financials.

Start in journalism

Marietta Lee took over for her uncle William “Bill” W. Lee, who retired as president and CEO, but has remained on the company’s board of directors. Her father, Leighton Lee III, was president prior to his brother for almost 30 years.

As the company’s first woman chief executive, Marietta Lee said she plans to continue to grow the privately held company and maintain its more than seven-decade history in Connecticut.

“We’re a 75-year-old family business, so I had no intent of coming in and turning the place upside down,” she said. “We’ve been successful, and I just wanted to make sure the transition went smoothly, that our customers were comfortable and that our employees were comfortable. As we go through the years, there will be changes for sure. When a CEO comes in and takes over a public company, they make changes swiftly and immediately. And that was not what I wanted to do.”

While she’s spent more than 20 years at The Lee Co. working in different roles, Lee said her original passion was journalism, specifically covering the court system and legal sector. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and literature from Georgetown University, then went to Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in Washington, D.C., to pursue a law degree.

“In college I sort of discovered that journalism was something that I was interested in,” she said. “At the time, there were a lot of people getting into journalism who were lawyers, and they would be commentators and journalists.”

Not joining the family business right after school is important to The Lee Co.

“We have a pretty strict family employment policy — you actually have to go have a job somewhere else,” she said. “We don’t like people to come right out of school into the family business because you learn a lot working somewhere else, plus we don’t want anyone to feel like they’re entitled to work here.”

Early in her professional career, Lee worked for an ABC-affiliate in Houston, and then Court TV in Washington D.C., where she was both a producer and reporter covering the Supreme Court and Justice Department. She then was hired by CBS to help produce “The Early Show,” a morning TV program that ran for more than a decade.

After leaving CBS with the intention of continuing her journalism career back in Connecticut, Lee was approached by family members who pitched her on joining the company.

With a growing young family, Lee, a married mother of two children, took the leap in early 2002.

Shortly after joining the family business, Lee went back to school to earn a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of New Haven.

“We’re heavily involved in engineering here, and I wanted to be able to speak the lingo and understand how factories ran and all about supply chains and other things that we deal with here,” she said.

Taking the reins

Lee started as an assistant facilities manager, then became facilities manager when her predecessor retired. In that role, she was in charge of making sure machines ran smoothly and buildings were maintained.

She also oversaw on-site construction projects, like those currently underway on the company’s Westbrook campus.

The Lee Co. is renovating two of its buildings to better streamline operations. One project involves the partial demolition and rebuild of a research and development building into a new innovation center.

Lee also held roles overseeing the company’s aerospace and automotive groups, before becoming chief operations officer in 2020.

As CEO, she now has more direct contact with customers and the sales team, and has been developing a public-facing persona as the top decision-maker.

“As COO, there’s always somebody above you that’s got to make the hard decision. So, being the final decision-maker has been a big change,” Lee said. “It’s not that I wasn’t involved in other decisions, but just knowing that at the end of the day it’s my decision — I feel a lot more responsibility.”

Being the first woman to lead the company, carries additional weight, she said.

“There really are very few senior-level female executives, so I was always sort of the only woman at the table. I was used to that. I’m not entirely sure, but I think our female workforce appreciates having a female at the top,” Lee said. “There are some female CEOs in manufacturing in Connecticut that I’ve gotten to know over the years, and they’re amazing. Having them as contacts, colleagues, or I might even call them friends, has been really nice.”

Looking ahead

Going into 2024, Lee Co.’s research and development teams have a renewed emphasis on space-technology development, a key growth area, Lee said.

“We’re developing new parts that the industry needs, and interestingly enough, some of the same parts we sold back during the space program when man was first walking on the moon, so it’s a variety of legacy parts and new parts,” Lee said.

Lee said she’s a “big believer” in Connecticut as a place to do business and has been heavily involved with CBIA for many years.

In addition to advocating for continued efforts to build up Connecticut’s workforce, Lee said she and the CBIA plan to push for more affordable housing and health insurance options and increased state investment in child care and trade schools.

“I feel like Connecticut is on a good path right now and poised to be more attractive to businesses to come in,” Lee said. “I’m optimistic for the future of Connecticut, and I have to say, I haven’t really felt that way in a long time. There are a lot of opportunities for companies here.”

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