Start Me Up
Kristin Toth is president and chief operating officer with Fernish, which offers furniture and home décor through rent, rent-to-own, and buy options.
Responsibilities: Identify short- and long-term priorities and goals and support the executional teams as they translate the financial model into action.
Experience: President and chief operating officer, investor, and board member, Fernish; board member, Radiant Logistics; chief operating officer, Dolly, Inc.; vice president, operations, logistics, fulfillment and supply chain, zulily; leadership and managerial positions with Amazon.com and with Dell Computer Corporation.
Education: MBA, MIT Sloan School of Management; S.M., transportation and supply chain, MIT; MSE and BSE, industrial engineering and operations research, University of Michigan.
Early in my career I was lucky to have several formative and amazing experiences. At Dell, for example, I worked on a massive reimagining of our manufacturing and logistics processes.
To understand them, I went on the plant floor and physically walked the processes, while also observing the virtual, software-driven process. I’d see that if we got rid of one step, we still had to figure out how to get certain information to the right person at the right time.
I pulled together about eight software teams and two hardware teams. Initially, I didn’t know the difference between, for instance, a router and a switch. I had to facilitate very humble conversations and ask, ‘How does this look to you? Does this seem like I have it? What am I missing?’
That experience showed me I could learn and have an impact, even in ambiguous or scary situations. It allowed me to see I could provide real value by marrying the worlds of supply chain, logistics, operations, and technology.
A Well- Rounded Education
I grew up thinking cross-functionally. I was interested in theater and music, and I also liked math, science, and writing. That’s how I ended up at the University of Michigan. It’s an amazing school with a lot of colleges that are top in their fields.
I applied to the College of Engineering. During my freshman year, they were recruiting for a program to build operational leaders. I didn’t think I wanted to be in operations, but I would get to take classes in engineering, business, foreign language, and culture, so I’d have an incredibly well-rounded education. I fell into the operations world, and really love it.
In any company that’s growing quickly, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by growth. You have to establish processes that are repeatable and predictable, so you don’t have to think about every action. With these processes in place, you can focus on where innovation will come from and where the opportunities are. Facilitating these conversations is a big part of my job.
My impact as an individual is limited to the time in the day and the skillsets that I have. But if I can remove roadblocks for others, I can get huge wins. The greatest thing for me is to watch others grow and develop, and even surprise themselves with what they’re able to do.
With each of my career moves, I’ve gone to earlier-stage companies. There’s a great phrase: ‘Running a startup means oscillating between terror and euphoria.’ You’re constantly faced with things that can feel very high stakes.
But the sense of collaboration, the camaraderie, the feeling that you’re all working in one direction and taking ownership in what you’re trying to build—even through the ‘oh my gosh, are we going to be able to do this?’—that’s why I keep going to startups.
Kristin Toth Answers the Big Questions
1. What supply chain disrupting technology would you like to see developed quickly?
Transparency in the supply chain is so key because there are risks to participating in the global economy. I would like anything technology that could provide transparency to questions like: Where are my shipments? When should I expect them? Are things on track or not?
2. What hobbies or activities make you better at supply chain management?
I love cooking and baking and that’s also why I love operations; you follow a set of instructions, pay attention to what you’re doing, put a lot of love into it, and then see the results.
During the pandemic, I began baking sourdough bread. When I try to work through a tough problem, I switch gears and might bake cupcakes for the team. I get lost in the process; it’s very zen and helps me reset and think things through.
3. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I wish I could teleport. I have teams and friends everywhere and would love to be able to see them more easily. I’d love to, say, hop into our warehouse in Austin, solve a problem, and hop back out.