Case Studies

Duane Boris – Northern Tool + Equipment

Blowing into Chicago and elsewhere with the tools of the trades

It seems that once a month, a large, big-box retailer announces it’s closing stores in markets big and small. However, quite the opposite is happening for Northern Tool + Equipment, which is opening locations in the country’s third-largest market—Chicago—while keeping an eye on expansion into new states across the country.

“To say we’ve been busy would be an understatement,” says Duane Boris, the company’s senior director of real estate.

Duane Boris | Senior Director of Real Estate and Facilities | Northern Tool + Equipment

Duane Boris | Senior Director of Real Estate and Facilities | Northern Tool + Equipment

Northern Tool + Equipment—which started as a catalog business in 1981—is a family-owned company headquartered in Burnsville, Minnesota, a suburb of the Twin Cities. Its first store was opened in Burnsville, Minnesota, and the company currently operates 131.

Boris’ team is working on everything from researching potential locations and site selection to procurement, construction management and store design. They’re currently focused on continued expansion in the Chicagoland market and a move into Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, along with locations in current markets.

Landing in Chicagoland

In November 2021, Northern Tool opened its first store in Chicago in Mount Prospect. The company has a strong online presence in the area, so opening a physical location made sense, Boris says. A second location opened in Melrose Park in November 2022, and a third opened in Glendale Heights in March. A a store is scheduled to be completed in Bolingbrook sometime in the summer, with a fifth location to follow soon after.

Right now, new construction locations are about 22,000 square feet, with the sweet spot being between that number and around 25,000 square feet. Expenses and the amount of time for new builds have increased about 40 percent mostly because of supply chain challenges.

“Standby generators used to take about 12 weeks to get, but that is about 38 weeks now,” Boris says. “There is a shortage of electrical panels and depending on the municipality, permitting can be a slog.”

Another challenge continues to be recruiting and retaining, though Boris says Northern Tool does a good job promoting career advancement opportunities. In fact, the company has more than 100 store managers who started their careers elsewhere in the company.

“Our current ‘Manager of the Year’ is in Midland, Texas, and started five years ago as a part-time cashier,” Boris says.

New states of play

To help with recruiting, the company has several programs, including one called Tools for the Trades, which includes visits to high schools to promote careers in the trades. Northern Tool also struck a deal with Richard Petty and Petty’s Garage, which donated over $20,000 worth of power tools and welding equipment to Petty’s alma mater, Randleman High School in North Carolina.

“In Texas, we host the Texas High School Welding Series at some of our stores,” Boris says. “It features learning welders from high schools. They compete in teams of four by completing a welding project like a fire pit or desk organizer. They are judged for their work and are rewarded with new welding equipment, Northern Tool gift cards and other welding related items.”

Duane Boris | Senior Director of Real Estate and Facilities | Northern Tool + Equipment

As the company works to expand into Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan and Pennsylvania—sites have already been approved in the first two states—Boris knows his team will continue to be busy. Northern Tool’s fiscal year runs August 1 to July 31, and he says he expects 10 to 14 stores to open in the 2023 calendar year. That includes a couple before July and another four or five to start the next fiscal year.

“We want to build stores, but we’re not being too aggressive,” he says. “Our growth in the next five years will outpace the previous five.”

That growth will be aided by the recent acquisition of Jack’s Small Engine company from Maryland, which Boris says updated and added to Northern Tool’s parts and services business. Northern Tool, which offers repair services in most of its retail locations, also now has seventeen mobile trucks around the country—if a customer can’t bring a piece of equipment to the store, mobile service is available.

“We can grow that fleet,” Boris says. “There is more out there if we can find the bandwidth.”

Working it out

Growing up in central Wisconsin, Boris says he always enjoyed building and creating. But he also liked business, which is what he studied at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Following graduation, Boris spent nearly 15 years in various leadership roles for Retail Construction Services Inc. He worked on projects for Nike, Gap and other major retailers, which he says led him to bigger opportunities in the industry.

Those opportunities first came as a lead construction project manager and development manager for Best Buy in high-profile territories like New York City, Boston, Los Angeles and Phoenix. One of his biggest projects was Best Buy’s 48,000-square-foot flagship store in Union Square in Manhattan. Working for a large public company had some advantages, he says, but there were also drawbacks, including answering to investors and shareholders and them expecting a certain number of stores built and opened each year.

Boris joined Northern Tool + Equipment in October 2010 as a real estate development manager. He then spent nine years as the company’s director of real estate development before being promoted to his current position in August 2021. He added responsibility of the facilities team in July 2022.

“Whether I’m coaching my local youth basketball players or my group at Northern Tool, I like being part of a team,” Boris says. “And I can’t think of a better team than my highly skilled professionals at Northern Tool.”

View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.

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