| LIFE I'll be buying me some Red Wing Boots

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Quoth the Raven...
Scholarship Club
Oct 13, 2004
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Great article on Red Wing Boots and their struggle to ensure and grow U.S. production. They also make Vasque hiking boots, with the Sundowner being an iconic leather boot. I've gone through two pair of them, getting over 2,000 miles between the two. I'll admit I snagged a cheap pair of fabric work/hiking boots from Costco most recently, and got about two seasons out of them with a little hiking and mainly building my house. I'll be going back to Red Wing. Bless them for the commitment to community and country.



Red Wing, Iconic U.S. Shoe Maker, Labors Mightily to Bring Production Home

Ruth Simon

By Ruth Simon | Photographs by Tim Gruber for The Wall Street Journal

2023 words

12 July 2019


Dow Jones Institutional News



Copyright © 2019, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

RED WING, Minn. -- Red Wing Shoe Co. has made footwear in the town that shares its name for 114 years, holding fast to U.S. manufacturing even as most of the industry moved overseas.

Yet in a sign of how hard it can be to reverse the tide of globalization, when Red Wing decided to introduce a new line of work boots here, the process took more than two years.

First, executives needed to hire more production engineers to help take the idea from concept to manufacturing. Designers created a boot with larger pieces that required less sewing to help offset higher U.S. labor costs. Then, factory workers had to learn a different way to connect soles to "uppers" stitched in the Dominican Republic. Red Wing had to build a new production line.

The Burnside leather boot hit Red Wing stores in May, priced at up to $320. It was the first time the cluttered facility, known locally as Plant 2, had made an entirely new work boot from "cut to box" in roughly two decades.

"The reality was that we had not developed a lot of new products for U.S. manufacturing," said Mark Urdahl, a former General Mills executive who joined Red Wing 14 years ago and became chief executive in 2015. "You start to lose the skill set -- through retirement and attrition -- of people who have the ability to develop footwear here."

The push to grow U.S. manufacturing has intensified amid concerns about the downsides of globalization and increased opposition to free-trade policies. The Trump administration boosted tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports to 25% in May. If negotiations with China fail, it has threatened to impose new tariffs on an additional $300 billion in Chinese imports, including footwear.

For decades, big shoe brands like Nike Inc. and Timberland have used a network of factories around the globe with millions of low-cost workers that now produce roughly 98% of what Americans put on their feet. The number of people working in U.S. footwear manufacturing has fallen by more than 50% since 2001, to fewer than 13,000 in 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

Rebuilding U.S. manufacturing presents complex challenges for industries like footwear, electronics and bicycles, where most of the supply chain has moved abroad. Even a company like Red Wing -- with a long history of U.S. production, private ownership and control over a key raw material and distribution -- makes more than two-thirds of its shoes abroad.

"We as a country don't have the capacity or, frankly, the desire to create the low-paying manufacturing jobs you would need to replicate China's capacity," said Patrick Fox, an executive with VF Corp., which generates nearly $14 billion in annual sales from brands including Timberland, The North Face and Vans, in testimony before the U.S. Trade Representative.

Red Wing, best known for high-end work boots with safety features for oil rigs or railroads, says it sold about 5.2 million pairs of shoes and boots last year. Of those, 1.3 million were fully made in the U.S., with another 300,000 stitched offshore and bottomed at plants in its hometown and in Potosi, Mo.

The rest it made in places such as Vietnam, Cambodia and the Dominican Republic. In the U.S., the company employs about 600 manufacturing workers, down from more than 1,000 in the early 2000s.

Red Wing says it is profitable, but clinging to U.S. production means it is probably leaving some money on the table. Founded in 1905, the company is controlled by scions of J.R. Sweasy, who bought a majority stake soon after being elected general manager in 1919.

If Red Wing was sold to a public company, "they would cease all operations in the United States because of the mentality of what public companies are like," said former CEO Bill Sweasy, now Red Wing's chairman. "Generally speaking, the highest bidder is the one willing to make the most cuts to make the purchase worthwhile."

Under Mr. Sweasy's father, William, Red Wing in 1977 purchased the dilapidated St. James Hotel, down the street from its headquarters, to keep it in the community. The 67-room property "about breaks even on a cash flow basis," said Mr. Urdahl, who lives more than an hour away and sometimes stays there.

"As a privately held company, it's not about maximizing profits," he said. "We certainly need to make money to invest, but we're also trying to maximize all interests, the community, the brand."

Producing shoes here shortens delivery times, meaning Red Wing can carry less inventory, and quickly respond to spikes in demand, such as for waterproof boots with safety toes following a hurricane.

U.S. manufacturing fits the company's integrated strategy by boosting demand for leather from company-owned S. B. Foot Tanning Co. and the supply of footwear Red Wing sells at its more than 550 company- and dealer-owned stores. It also has 170 Red Wing trucks that travel to oil refineries and other job sites.

Jamie Joyce, a union mechanic with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston for the past 17 years, receives an extra $100 every July as a boot allowance. Mr. Joyce said he uses the money to buy new boots every other year from a local Red Wing dealer. "That type of boot will last double the lifetime of an ordinary boot off the shelf," said Mr. Joyce.

But the price is substantially higher. Tractor Supply Co., a farm and ranch retailer with nearly 1,800 stores nationwide, recently told the U.S. Trade Representative that steel-toe and welted-leather work boots made in the U.S. cost up to four times as much as the work boots it imports from China.

SG Cos. was the last remaining major U.S. slipper manufacturer when it closed its Hackensack, N.J., factory, which employed 500, in 2002. "The only way to survive as a company was to shut down the factory and exclusively become an importer," said Chief Executive Matt Feiner, who called the move "devastating." The 123-year-old company now sells about 20 million pairs of Chinese-made slippers, flip flops and other footwear a year.

Roth Martin, co-founder of popular shoe startup Rothy's Inc., tried and failed to build a U.S. manufacturing operation when he set out a few years ago to make women's shoes from recycled plastic bottles.

He took space in an old factory in Lewiston, Maine, an area known for shoe making. Contract manufacturers showed little interest and toolmakers filed for bankruptcy. A crucial adhesive, no longer made in the U.S., had to be imported from the U.K. A shortage of skilled workers and difficulties building an integrated U.S. supply chain made scaling a challenge.

Mr. Martin said he was able to design and develop the shoes domestically, but had to shift to Southern China for production, investing millions of dollars in a factory there. "I tried to set up manufacturing here and failed," the San Francisco native said. "It was a sad commentary for us."

Rothy's sleek six-story factory in China now employs more than 500 people and has more than 250 automated knitting machines that operate 22 hours a day.

Boston-based New Balance Athletics Inc. owns five footwear factories in New England, yet often imports key components, such as soles, laces and Velcro straps.

New Balance makes some of its own components, such as mid-soles, in the U.S. to meet requirements for selling U.S.-made shoes to the military, but the supply chain isn't strong enough to meet all its U.S. manufacturing needs, the company said.

Barbour Corp. in Brockton, Mass., is the only domestic maker of leather Goodyear welting, a narrow strip of cowhide with a channel critical to Red Wing's process for stitching soles to uppers. In 1979, there were four makers of leather welting in the U.S., said Bruce Pearson, executive vice president at Barbour.

When the Ohio-based maker of Red Wing's Taslan shoelaces closed in the early 2000s, two Red Wing design team members spent months teaching other vendors old-school methods for making laces, dissecting vintage laces and testing ways to texture nylon yarns and weave patterns.

Finding workers is another challenge. Red Wing now "hires for potential" instead of seeking the perfect fit, said director of talent acquisition Laurie Groteboer. "We are looking for people who are craftspeople in other parts of their life. They do quilting or car restoration or build farm equipment. They have attention to detail."

Red Wing recently created a program to train leather cutters, but the company has also added technology, such as machines that use artificial intelligence to determine how best to cut a hide. Cutters with 30 years of experience can still do it better, but are getting hard to find. "We don't look at automation as eliminating jobs," Mr. Urdahl said. "We look at it as being able to keep our factories running with the people we can get."

In 1986, when the S. B. Foot tannery, a half-mile from Plant 2, was struggling, Red Wing bought it to ensure a steady supply of leather. In the 1990s, as other shoe companies moved offshore, Red Wing snapped up factories in Potosi, Mo., and Danville, Ky. It bought equipment from shuttered factories for 10 cents on the dollar.

Red Wing first began making shoes offshore in the 1960s but kept production of its premium Red Wing boots fully in the U.S. until the early 2000s. That's when it began stitching some uppers abroad, then shipping them to Red Wing or Potosi for finishing.

"I wanted to maintain U.S. manufacturing, but not drive us into a black hole with some blind ambition," said former CEO Dave Murphy, who became president of Red Wing in 2001, when it was struggling financially.

Red Wing's U.S. factories are good at stitching large pieces of leather, but labor costs are high. Manufacturing workers at Plant 2 start at around $17 an hour and can make more than $20 an hour, excluding overtime.

12 Jul 2019 10:36 ET Red Wing, Iconic U.S. Shoe Maker, Labors Mightily -2-

Red Wing continued to make best sellers, like the SuperSole collection, in the U.S. It held tight to proprietary bottoming techniques, rebuffing Chinese partners' requests to learn about its technology for pairing a hard urethane outer sole with a softer inner sole.

The inspiration for the Burnside came in late 2016 after a meeting with union representatives, when Mr. Urdahl surveyed the small second shift and its empty workstations from a balcony. "We have equipment standing down there," he recalls telling Mike Noonan, head of product creation. "Wouldn't it be great if we had the opportunity to have all this running right now on a second shift?"

Red Wing spent more than $1 million on equipment and tooling for the new boot, including an automated cutting machine and two computerized stitchers that allow for continuous sewing. It also hired 40 new employees.

To ease into making a new shoe, Plant 2 learned to bottom the Brnr, a new boot with uppers made of 18 pieces stitched in the Dominican Republic and a polyurethane mid sole with a rubber skin out sole. It took months to develop the right chemistry and curing times. Though the components are different, the same process is used to bottom the Burnside.

"It wasn't necessarily the most leading-edge technology of footwear manufacturing," Mr. Noonan said. "None of that matters if the factory you are in hadn't done it before."

Write to Ruth Simon at ruth.simon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 12, 2019 10:36 ET (14:36 GMT)

Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

Document DJDN000020190712ef7c001fq


el jefe
Bama Club
Jan 2, 2014
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always wanted a pair of red wings


Bama Club
Jul 25, 2015
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Red Wing used to be a client of mine. Very interesting place to visit. Fly into Minneapolis and drive to Red Wing. Not a lot of options of places to stay but the folks at Red Wing would tell us to stay at the St. James Hotel, a mid 1800s hotel. Very nostalgic.

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