The view from the rooftop of the Red Wing Shoe Co. executive offices is a panorama that draws international visitors for a good reason: you can watch the Mississippi River, with its barges and busy marina, or marvel at a town—and a company—that seem like a perfect balance of hip style and workingclass roots.
Given its riverside location, historic charm and brisk tourist business, Red Wing is sometimes compared to Stillwater, but the two are distinctly different in personality. Upscale Stillwater boasts chic stores and restaurants, with a country club at its northern end, and leisure crafts skimming along its St. Croix edge.
While Red Wing has a few of those fashionable elements, like a yoga studio and boutiques, most of the town is pure blue-collar. Geared toward locals, some downtown businesses have been around for almost a century, not just decades.
With its much-loved bakery, ma-and-pa hardware store, diner-type cafes, and simple flower shop, Red Wing is a place that so typifies the world's idea of small-town Americana that it draws tourists from around the globe, and many of them end up on that shoe company roof deck. "For our international guests, this place is like a Disneyland of middle America, it's everything they've heard about," says Mark Urdahl, the company's senior vice president.
Red Wing Shoe and the town are so intertwined that it seems unthinkable to pry them apart. Many residents have either worked at the company, which locals call "The Shoe," or have a family member who has. If the company were to pack up and relocate to St. Louis or Mexico City or Hong Kong, it would likely have to change its name, because the link between The Shoe and Red Wing is so strong that they share a connection far beyond property and employees.
Urdahl says, "For those in the community, Red Wing Shoe typifies what the town is all about, like stability, hard work and pride. The company and the town need each other—there's a bond there, a relationship that's definitely unique."
In many ways, Red Wing and the shoe company grew up together, each entity determined to create a unique place that wouldn't become a tourist-only destination or a historical relic.
Red Wing was incorporated as a city in 1857, and its position on the river ensured its place as a brisk trading town. Manufacturers began popping up, making products like pottery, leather and linseed oil, and of course, shoes.
The shoe company got its start in 1905, when German immigrant Charles Beckman brought in investors and founded Red Wing Shoe Co. Steady growth came from the manufacturer's focus on the booming industries of farming, mining, railroading, logging and blacksmithing. In 1921, the company came under the control of J.R. Sweasy, and has been family-owned by the Sweasy clan ever since.
Given the town's family-friendly atmosphere, it's not surprising that The Shoe would be helmed by the same family for nearly a century, and much like the company it ran, the Sweasy family has had a significant impact on the town itself. The prominent YMCA anchoring the downtown area was made possible by Sweasy funds, and the tourist-magnet St. James Hotel was bought by the company in the late 1970s.
"The family has made a continual investment in this community, and the impact of that isn't just economic, it's broader than that," says Kay Kuhlmann, council administrator for the City of Red Wing. "They keep the community healthy and diversified. If it weren't for them, and Red Wing Shoe, this would be a very different place."
The company continues to dig deep into community building, notes the firm's president, Dave Murphy. He points out that not only is The Shoe the third-largest employer of full-time employees in town, but it's also the largest contributor to the United Way in a three-county area. A pet project of the Sweasy family and the company is an environmental learning center that helps young people engage with the outdoors. "In the 10 years I've worked here, Bill Sweasy has never asked me about the profitability of the company," says Murphy. "He asks about the people, the brand, customers, employees—he focuses so much on the core culture of who we are, and the town is certainly a part of that culture."
Recently the company remodeled its offices in downtown Red Wing next to the St. James, and across from its new, sizable retail store. "We are headquartered downtown to show our commitment to the community," says Murphy. "We want to help the town grow, we want to showcase it. We're proud of being here."
With such a solid, shared foundation, The Shoe has been able to thrive despite a tough time in the retail industry. In part, its growth draws from its success with such a niche product—if you work on an oil rig, construction site, farm or commercial tanker, chances are that you're wearing Red Wing boots or the person next to you is.
Only a small percentage of the footwear industry consists of boots and shoes produced specifically for the work market, but Red Wing Shoe has that slice on lockdown. Although some of its brands, like Vasque and Irish Setter, have fans in the hiking and hunting realms, its meat-and-potatoes market has always been with those who lean toward, well, meat and potatoes.
A few years ago, the company started expanding its line beyond work-only footwear and created distinctive versions of its most popular boots for the "lifestyle market." Skipping the steel toes, serious tread and job-specific functionality (such as a heavy metal plate over laces for welders), the lifestyle boots still have the Red Wing styling, but they're geared more toward the Brooks Brothers or J.Crew set.
At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, Red Wing began sprouting some hipster elements of its own. The town reflects the new kind of blend seen at The Shoe, with working-class roots and upscale touches. There's an Elks lodge and VFW, but also a yoga studio and urban-style food co-op. Despite the infusion of hip elements, though, neither Red Wing nor The Shoe are poised to become trendy quite yet. In some ways, both even resist that pull.
For example, the factory floor at the shoe company is much like it has been for generations, with surprisingly little automation. Peter Engel, the firm's director of marketing, notes that several of the major elements of footwear production, like stitching, are simply better done by using the sewing machine by hand. The factory is a maze of workstations and employees, and some industrial sewing and leather punching machines are so old that they look like antiques.
Engel points these out lovingly, saying that they haven't found any new-style machines that can provide the same quality. When a really old machine breaks, the company has to call in a retired maintenance engineer who knows how to get it back up and running, just as he's done for decades. A few spiffy 21st-century machines pop up here and there, but they're distinctive more for their newness than their utility.
The View Ahead
In the same way that The Shoe draws on traditional methods and tried-and-true systems, Red Wing's downtown area maintains that same historical sentiment, along the lines of "If it's working fine, why mess with it?"
The library building might boast new books, but it has the same general look and feel as it did when it opened in 1969.
As big-box retailers begin to dot the landscape on the edges of town—most notably, Target and WalMart—there's a kind of resistance in the downtown scene, a quiet determination not to become just another Twin Cities suburb or a trend-driven hotspot. One nod toward this entrenchment is that gourmet darling Staghead recently closed, but the town's 35-year-old Liberty’s Restaurant & Lounge seems like it will serve its steaks, chops and pizza well into the future.
Other new boutique gift stores and stylish cafes have blossomed and faded as well, much like any small town's retail scene, but the truly recession-proof places, like Hanisch Bakery, the YMCA, St. James Hotel and the Uffda Shop—with its wealth of Scandinavian gifts of the Ole & Lena type—might as well be built on bedrock, just like The Shoe itself. The town welcomes newcomers and seems willing to entertain progress, but not if it comes at the price of a significant identity change.
"To me, there's such strength to having a manufacturing base, with blue-collar and white-collar people working together," says Kuhlmann. "It keeps Red Wing balanced and healthy. The company grows in the same way the town does, with slow, steady growth that shields us from booms and busts, and makes for a great small-town community."
That's the secret to the company's success: Despite the fact that The Shoe has factories in other locations and ships some of its manufacturing work to China, the company will always be infused with Red Wing, and the small-town charm that the name evokes. With both the town and the company, that feeling isn't manufactured as the result of a marketing brand campaign. Instead, it wells up from an authenticity that's tough to find in the corporate world. Red Wing Shoe might be just a name for some who buy its products, but for those in the company and the citizens of the town, its meaning runs deep.
That sense of rootedness certainly keeps employees in place—some in the factory have been there for more than 30 years, and tend to bring in family members, too.
Roger Spindler, the local union president who works as a leather cutter in the factory, started working for The Shoe when he was 19 years old, and is now thinking about when he'll retire. For the past 38 years, he's seen some changes at the factory but the sense of stability has remained the same. "The company brings so much employment to the town, and that's always a good thing," he says. "As for me, my wages put my daughter through college and put food on the table, and the work is good."
Recruiting executives can be challenging, Urdahl admits, especially if they're coming from other parts of the country and aren't keen on life in a bucolic town, as opposed to a bustling city. But once they see the place, he notes, they get it. "They're a little skeptical until they experience it," he says.
Recently the company announced that it would be expanding its number of retail stores in the country, but it still doesn't sell its products online. That's because The Shoe wants its customers to experiemce the type of attentive service that most people find when they go to a trusted retail shoe store in a town like Red Wing. Can the company keep extending that small-town feeling to other parts of the country, or even around the planet, without diluting its brand or losing its soul? That's the plan.
"We know the importance of our roots, and of our culture," says Murphy. "Meeting the needs of our employees, customers and community is just what we do, it's ingrained in us. That's not going to change."