For over 100 years the Red Wing Shoe Company has firmly positioned itself as a brand synonymous with quality and trust. The company, very much for the working man and woman, has a real focus on excellence, innovation and service before profit. With 2,500 employees, positioned in more than 110 countries worldwide, its work-boots have set the gold-standard for safety in many industry sectors for years – while its main production facilities are still firmly rooted in Red Wing, Minnesota, where the company was founded in 1905.
With U.S. sales of protective clothing at $1.6 billion, and expected to reach $2.3 billion in 2017, Total World Energy’s Rick Liddiment speaks with Dave Murphy, President of Red Wing Shoe Company – arguably the most recognisable work-boot brand worldwide – to find out more about this decorated company’s global offering. Originally focussed solely on work-boots, Red Wing has expanded over the years to be able to provide full head-to-toe safety wear for workers in the oil and gas industry – anything from safety boots to flame-resistant garments.
“We are 109 years old. We were founded in 1905, by a gentleman named Charles Beckman and he had had a tanning business,” explains Murphy. “He got into the footwear business right here in Red Wing Minnesota, along the Mississippi river – just 60 miles outside of Minneapolis. Not long after he started the company, William Sweasy – one of the ancestors of Bill Sweasy our current chairman, bought the company and we have built the business ever since. It’s been in the Sweasy family for nearly 100 years and we are now into the fourth generation.
“Texas was our first big oil and gas market and from there it expanded. As these companies were drilling in Texas went world-wide, we went with them.”
Red Wing Shoe Company has not only survived, but prospered for over a hundred years and in the face of recessions, two world wars and the major decline of American shoe-manufacturing in the second half of the 21st century. Much of this is down to the company’s loyalty to its core values and the continued influence the Sweasy family holds within the business.
“It is a privately held company which is, in a way, a competitive advantage for us, because it lets us focus on footwear and what we do well. It lets us focus on the customer – we don’t focus on our earnings. We aren’t caught up in quarterly reports, quarterly announcements and so forth. Our shareholders, particularly Bill Sweasy – our chairman and largest shareholder, are very dedicated to making great products and serving our customers.”
One facet of the operating structure that has underpinned Red Wing’s ability to stay ahead of the pack, is its ongoing focus on R&D and innovation. Housed in the building where the company was founded is an extensive R&D facility, dedicated to the development of quality footwear products and oil and gas garments.
“We have a very comprehensive lab where we are testing current products and newly developed products,” explains Murphy. “We have some of the deepest experts in leather. In fact, we sell our leather to a number of competitors. Our leather is used in U.S. military boots – we don’t make military boots because we sell to those that do. You see any U.S. military man or woman around the world – that leather comes from our tannery, right here in Red Wing Minnesota. We have 3,000 consumers in different industries that wear-test our product. These 3,000 consumers participate in our wear-tester program where they test product that has not been released to the public yet. Wear-tests can range anywhere from three to six months – and we’re one of the few that do that.”
As a company that started off solely servicing local markets, Red Wing entered its first international market more than 50 years ago and is now represented in 110 countries globally. It has offices in Dubai, Houston, the Gulf of Mexico, Aberdeen, Stavanger – all of the key oil regions of the world. Part of the key to the brand’s success may also be attributed to just how much the company has vertically integrated its operations over the years.
“We have two tanneries. We start with bloody cow hide, all the way to personally fitting footwear on the feet of our consumers all over the world. We have factories and two tanneries in the United States as well as some international production in China, Vietnam and the Dominican Republic,” says Murphy.
With their ‘Made in America’ appeal, Red Wing boots have managed to become an iconic fashion staple with their Heritage brand, as well as an essential part of kit for workers in varied industry sectors. The triple-stitching Red Wing uses started out as a feature to create longer-lasting and sturdier boots, but has ended up being a signature of the brand. In fact, if you are lucky enough to visit one of the production facilities today, you will see the same Puritan Stitching Machines very much operational within a company that goes by the saying; ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’.
With work-wear, Red Wing services many different industry sectors including; construction, heavy industry, mining, railroads, transportation and oil and gas to name a few. With over 70% of business comprising of work products, with oil and gas being a dominant market, it is only natural that the company has included flame-resistant material and garments as part of their safety wear.
“We felt that the Red Wing brand could carry over in to other personal protective equipment. Everything from flame-resistant garments to highly-insulated and very lightweight and cool overalls; all designed to protect from flash explosions. When you think about companies like BP or Exxonmobil you know safety is the first thing on their minds, but the last thing they want to worry about. It’s the most important thing to them but they’d rather have that so nailed down that they don’t have to worry about it. We can provide head-to-toe protection all over the world and when you get to that question of competitive advantage – that is our aim,” explains Murphy.
Red Wing Shoe Company’s deep commitment to quality before profits and its organic growth has built a strong foundation of trust with its customers, both from a fashion and working point of view.
“Being competitive starts with great quality products. Our work wear is known all over the world. We’re really the only brand, particularly in footwear, that is everywhere.
“We think of ourselves as purpose-built. Our first objective is to make sure we meet the purpose. We have literally thousands of styles of product – all designed to meet certain requirements,” adds Murphy.
QUALITY SERVICE FOR QUALITY PRODUCT
Second only to the quality of the product and another of Red Wing’s core values is its continued dedication to first-class service. It is not enough for the company to be present worldwide – they have developed innovative ways of tailoring their services to the very specific demands of their industrial customers.
“We have 200 trucks that are full Red Wing shoe-stores on wheels,” explains Murphy. “They hold 1000 pairs of shoes and we actually go to sites. We’ll go to power plants, we’ll go to construction sites, we’ll go to oil facilities – whatever it takes. We have this deep distribution with stores, trucks and industrial sowing people.
“The safety managers of these big companies want consistency, they aren’t dealing with regional suppliers who don’t know who they are. So we basically go to these people and say – we can serve you anywhere in the world. We can serve you quickly. We can get stuff out on the oil rigs on a helicopter, and in Aberdeen we can get stuff in the North Sea in three hours. We not only have the garments and the footwear, we actually produce and sell high-protection gear. We can give these safety directors and everyone else everything they need in convenience.”
As part of continued innovation at the company, Red Wing is coming out with VectorGuard™ in 2015. The mosquito-repellent fabric for PPE garments is specially geared to service oil and gas workers in tropical climates. The garment technology will able to withstand hazardous working environments and will last over 70 washes (the expected life-span of a work garment). Importantly, the fabric can be used on both fire-retardant and non-fire retardant Red Wing oil and gas garments. Perhaps even more importantly than that, it will give workers and employers added peace of mind and reduce cases of the potentially fatal disease.
Looking forward, there are a few exciting things on the horizon for Red Wing. Aside from the imminent release of VectorGuard™, the company has an exciting project pipeline.
“We are refreshing and updating some of our extremely popular work styles so they will hold-up longer and perform even better than they do now. We also have some very exciting brand new products being released in 2015 for our work and industrial footwear lines. I can only tease them right now, but keep an eye on us in 2015 for more information.”
LACED WITH REDWING
Dave Murphy has been with Red Wing for 13 years, but got his start at one of the world’s largest food companies.
“I did not grow up in the footwear industry, I grew up in the marketing and management world at General Mills – a food company. What I did bring was brand experience and management. What I didn’t have was any footwear experience, which has been so fun for me. I’ve been at the slaughterhouse where we get our leather in Skyline Nebraska. I’ve actually sold footwear to real consumers, not very well I’m afraid, but it’s just incredible, exciting – I’ve never had a job like it and it’s just been the greatest. I’m probably one of the few guys that has more shoes than his wife!
“I was in the Gulf of Mexico, probably six or seven years ago and I was on an oil rig. I was actually talking to the cook, because I was trying to understand how these guys feel on the rigs and he said to me: ‘Let me show you something. I want to tell you why your footwear is so important to us.’ We’re standing on the corner of the rig, literally along the edge of the rig and he takes a raw chicken, we’re 70 miles offshore and he throws it over the side of the oil rig. He said ‘look over the edge,’ and it falls down towards the water, but it never hits the water. When it gets right to the water’s edge, to the surface of the water, these fish jump out of the water and consume this chicken. They bounce it like a basketball rebound and they eat this chicken before it hits the water. He looked at me and said: ‘slip resistance is veryimportant.’ So I’ve had these experiences where you can see first-hand.”
What’s clear when talking with Dave Murphy and what’s evident throughout Red Wing Shoe Company is the undeniable passion its employees have for the brand – a real drive to stay true to the company’s core ideals. This may well be the true essence of Red Wing’s success over the years. It maintains its facilities in Minnesota when at some points it would have made more sense financially to have relocated and has shown true dedication throughout its history to the community of Red Wing, Minnesota, from which it was forged.
“We have a mission statement and I don’t worry about whether our employees can quote it, but they live it: ‘Red Wing Shoe Company will be a company whose first priority is employees as we serve our customers, our shareholders, our suppliers and our community.’ It does start with our employees and they are all dedicated to serve our customers with quality and service. So – that’s what it’s all about,” he concludes.