Suresh Krishna is seeking to accelerate innovation as the new president and chief executive at Northern Tool + Equipment.

Krishna, most recently chief operating officer at Sleep Number, joined Burnsville-based Northern Tool in April after serving on the family-owned, billion-dollar company’s board of directors since 2015.

Krishna brought an external view to the board as fellow members Ryan and Wade Kotula succeed their father, Don Kotula, who founded Northern Tool in 1981 and was its first CEO. Longtime President and CEO Chuck Albrecht has retired.

“I’ll be the third CEO in the 40-year history of the company,” Krishna said. “Chuck built it for Ryan and Wade. Now they are entrusting me to build it for their kids. The perspective is vastly different, the patience, the generational thinking, those are all unique opportunities for any CEO to get.”

A new disinfectant sprayer intended to help fight COVID-19 in high-traffic areas — developed in just six weeks — is the kind of rapid innovation Krishna said he wants Northern Tool to build on. Personal-protective equipment is an area for possible expansion.

As an essential business, Northern Tool continues operating its 115-plus stores in 22 states during the coronavirus pandemic, Krishna said. Online and “buy online-pick up in store” orders have increased. The company recently launched contactless, curbside pickup for online purchases and is piloting local delivery in a southern market.

Also a manufacturer, Northern Tool designs and makes some private-label products at its factories in Faribault and China.

Krishna, who has held leadership roles at Polaris Industries, UTC Fire & Security and Diageo, earned an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University and a mechanical engineering degree from the National Institute of Technology in India.

Q: What are your priorities for Northern Tool?

A: My role will be to create a strategy that is going to leverage the strengths of the company. They’ve retained the entrepreneurial spirit of the founder. They have an innovative spirit for a company of their size. They’re very customer oriented. They’re looking for their next act that’s going to help propel them and be more meaningful and valuable to their customers.

How can they stay relevant to these customers, provide them even more products and at the same time find more customers? That in a nutshell is what I’m aspiring to do with the group of people who are here.

Q: How does Northern Tool maintain that entrepreneurial spirit?

A: The attitude internally is that we’re a small company and we’ve got to battle bigger companies every day. The way we can win is customer intimacy, being close to the customer [and] understanding what they need and then innovating very fast to give what the customer wants.

Q: What’s a challenge facing the company?

A: The economic environment could be a challenge or an opportunity. The DNA of the company is every time they enter a challenging period they find a way to convert it into opportunity. Ramping up innovation in a more methodical way — and that’s part of the expertise I bring from my experience at Polaris and Sleep Number — the ability to innovate and bring innovation faster to market is something that we’re going to focus on at Northern Tool and we’re going to make that part of our competitive mode.

 

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com