Director of Product Development Red Wing Shoes, Dave Hill, has worked with Red Wing Shoes and their own tannery for over 30 years. He talks about his special business and experience.
Interview: Regina Henkel

Red Wing has its own tannery. How many shoe brands can afford that kind of luxury, and how many were there 50 years ago?
There are very few shoe brands, globally, that can afford to have their own tannery. We estimate that there are approximately five brands that own or operate complete tanning operations. In addition to the cost of owning/operating a tannery, there are significant requirements for technical expertise related to the production of leathers. While there is some availability of competent, highly skilled leather technicians, there are not as many available as in the past. Thus, owning and operating a tannery has become more challenging due to the high costs associated with raw materials, equipment, technology, and technical support. I am not certain how many there were 50 years ago. Historically, there were shoe brands that owned their own tanneries but I do not believe it was more than 12 to 15 in the global marketplace.

Making shoes and tanning leather are hard physical activities. Don’t you have a problem with recruiting new staff in Red Wing?
Historically, recruiting new staff has not been a significant problem for either the tannery or the shoe company. Both S.B. Foot Tanning and Red Wing Shoe Company are recognized for their exceptional relationships and treatment of their employees. Hard-physical work and highly skilled craftsmanship are valued, appreciated, and compensated with very fair and competitive wages. Many employees live and work in Red Wing (or the surrounding areas) their entire working careers because they believe they are working in very satisfactory conditions, are treated fairly, with respect, and receive exceptional compensation for their hard work and dedication. The tannery and shoe factory have always exercised care and concern for their employees with safe and efficient manufacturing methods/processes. At times, as society and values change, some younger people have chosen or preferred not to work on jobs requiring hard physical effort but there has not been a problem with recruiting enough capable staff.

The Heritage models are original work shoes and will continue to be worn as such. How much room do you have for fashionable adjustments?
We have considerable options for fashionable adjustments, and we believe that how we interpret fashion trends is very important for our brand. One of our signature strengths, leather, readily lends itself to colour and/or texture trends that emerge in fashion. We do not “chase fashion” per se but we do utilize new leather colours and/or textures, outsoles, hardware, and other footwear components for whenever it makes sense for the brand. Our rich, deep history as a premium, American brand has provided us with an almost never-ending source of ideas and inspiration. We are able to leverage core aspects of the brand (style types/platforms, materials, construction details, leathers, etc.) to ensure that we remain relevant to our existing customers and attractive to prospective customers. We believe that as an authentic, genuine, American made brand, we never go out of fashion or style.