Member Focus Q&A: Red Wing Shoe Company

Red Wing Shoe Company prides itself on setting a standard of excellence for work boots that can be found on shop floors across the country. “You need to have people who care about making products that do their jobs and keep workers safe,” says President and CEO Dave Murphy. This month, he spoke with Member Focus about Red Wing’s commitment to high-quality, cutting-edge manufacturing.

Member Focus (MF): Red Wing’s shoes can be found everywhere, from oil rigs, to farms, to automotive shop floors. What defines the quality of Red Wing’s shoes?

Murphy: “Quality” is a word you hear a lot at Red Wing Shoes. Not only do we invest in the quality of our footwear, but we also invest in the quality of our employees and the quality of our company so that we are an excellent place to work. And that’s where the process of building quality footwear starts—with the people. You need to have people who care about making products that do their jobs and keep workers safe.

From there, it becomes about the materials and how the products are made. We are a vertically integrated company, which means we control everything from the tanning of our boot leather to where and how our boots are sold. We call it “cut-to-box.” We tan and cut our own leather and sell our products at our branded retail stores. Here in the United States, we have two leather tanning facilities, two manufacturing plants and over 500 company- and dealer-owned retail stores. We control the entire production and selling process, which means we can ensure everything is done right. That is an edge we have over our competitors, and for our customers, this translates into working with a company that understands its products inside and out.

Our boots are purpose-built, which means they are designed for specific workers in specific industries. We also carry a wide variety of sizes and widths, including sizing and custom-built options that our competitors don’t have. With so many options, it’s important to have sales associates at our retail stores who are knowledgeable about fit and job-specific requirements.

That’s why we personally size and fit every customer who walks into a Red Wing store. A proper fit is key; you can have the best boot for the job, but if it doesn’t fit right, then that boot is worthless. So, the final ingredient to our quality circles back to our employees—employees in our stores who understand the importance of fit and can recommend the best boot for your job.

We maintain quality in everything we do, from the people we hire, to how our boots are made, to how our boots are sold.

MF: More than 60 percent of Red Wing’s products are manufactured in the United States, enabling the company to quickly turn around hundreds of types of active footwear. What are some of the top policy issues that must be addressed for Red Wing to continue manufacturing in the United States and remain competitive in the global marketplace?

Murphy: As I’m sure every member of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) knows, when it comes to manufacturing in the United States, staying competitive in the global marketplace is a huge concern. A real strength that manufacturers in the United States have is being able to use the USA label. Across the globe, “Made in the USA” stands for quality. However, inside the United States, “Made in the USA” doesn’t mean the same thing in every state.

For example, a product that is sold in California as “Made in the USA” is held to a different standard than a product that is sold in Minnesota as “Made in the USA.” In California, a product sold as “Made in the USA” has to be 100 percent sourced and built in the United States, including the negligible parts like eyelets and shoelaces. If it’s not 100 percent, it can’t use the label. This causes a lot of confusion and difficulty for manufacturers in the United States because we are forced to comply with different standards inside our own country while also working to comply with standards in 100 other countries.

This issue needs to be addressed, and “Made in the USA” needs to be treated the same throughout the United States. I know there are many manufacturers in the United States out there who are struggling with this issue, and the positive thing is that this issue has brought a lot of them together to recommend a solution. Bringing manufacturers together is something we need more of and one of the reasons we are a member of the NAM. We, as manufacturers, deal with issues like this day in and day out, so we are probably going to have a pretty good idea about how to solve them.

MF: As manufacturers focus on building the next generation of skilled workers, Red Wing is no exception. In fact, Red Wing is playing a unique role: outfitting the young men and women who are the future of the industry. Tell us more about this role and Red Wing’s involvement in workforce-development initiatives.

Murphy: At Red Wing Shoes, we are very aware of the wants and needs of young workers. They are smart, savvy consumers who require more out of their brands than their predecessors did. Not only do they want reliable, durable products that work as intended, but they also want those products to have innovative technologies, and they want to feel connected to the brands they buy from.

For our part, we have some very exciting products coming out later this year that are targeted at that next generation of skilled workers. They are athletically styled, very lightweight work shoes that maintain the quality and durability of our work boots. They look sharp and are incredibly comfortable, and you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from any other athletic shoe just by looking at them. But they are different; they are loaded up with Red Wing technology to keep you comfortable and protected on the job

We are also working on several messaging and marketing campaigns that celebrate workers. We have a longstanding brand film series that shines a light on men and women across America doing the jobs that keep our country moving. These films focus both on our internal manufacturing employees as well as the customers we build products for.

You can find them on our website at   

There’s a huge need right now in our country for skilled tradesmen, but unfortunately, there’s also a bit of a stigma surrounding some of these jobs. We want to help do away with that stigma and attract young workers to trades that are in need of that next generation’s enthusiasm and energy. Our customers include ironworkers, pipefitters, manufacturers, linemen and dockworkers. The men and women in these skilled jobs are very proud of the work they do, and they should be. There’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be found in these trades, and we want to help tell that story to the next generation so that they will begin careers they can be proud of.

In our own manufacturing plants, we have mentor programs where longtime employees train the newer, younger employees. It takes more than 200 steps to build a single Red Wing boot. It is a very involved process that requires skilled workers, so when we hire new manufacturing employees, we put a lot of effort into training them and teaching them skills that can be utilized throughout their career.

MF: As NAM President and CEO Jay Timmons said during his State of Manufacturing Tour earlier this year, “Manufacturing is about incredible new technologies—3-D printing, nanoscale chemistry, energy efficiency, satellite technology and medicines that are saving lives and changing the world.” Technology continues to transform our more than $2 trillion, cutting-edge industry. How is Red Wing integrating the latest technologies in its processes and products?

Murphy: Technology is essential to our products. We are always innovating and evolving to keep up with the changing marketplace. With the advent of new manufacturing machinery, new chemicals and new safety standards, our products must evolve to meet the demand. We use the latest shock-resistant technologies and the latest insulating and waterproofing materials and are always working on developing new components and materials in our R&D departments.

Recently, we made a multimillion-dollar investment in our Red Wing, Minn., plant by installing brand-new machinery that will allow us to make a safety boot manufactured nowhere else in the United States. We are calling them our Injex boots, and they are modeled after rubber boots with one major difference. Rather than being made out of rubber, they are made out of a polyurethane material that is injected into a boot mold, hence the name. Targeted to the oil and gas sector as well as any jobsite with the presence of chemicals or dirty conditions, these knee-high boots are chemical resistant, very lightweight and can easily be washed.

We are serving a need that is very prominent in the oil and gas industry where typical work boots don’t last long because of the beating they take from both the chemicals and the long workdays. These new Injex boots last much longer in conditions where chemicals are present, and they are an innovative response to a real-world need.

There are few industries out there as technology-forward as manufacturing. There are amazing, world-changing things happening in this industry, and we are extremely proud to be a part of it and to serve it. We exist on both ends of the spectrum in this industry. On one end, we are manufacturers and always looking for ways to innovate and grow. On the other end, we serve the manufacturing industry by providing safety gear, and so we have to stay in tune with what’s happening to continue to provide products that meet manufacturers’ needs.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Member Focus.

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