How Red Wing Accomplished a Reboot

From transforming a legendary company to promoting a strong culture built on family values, Shawn Sweeney shares how Red Wing Shoes continues to set the bar for footwear apparel

Shawn Sweeney, Red Wing Shoes

Known for its scenic beauty, miles of flowing rivers, dense forestry, and working-class pride, it’s here in Red Wing, Minnesota, that Charles Beckman developed a boot that could perform in the harshest of environments. From oil and corn fields to mines and construction sites, Red Wing Shoes has been developing products to protect workers for more than a century all around the world.

But even the most renowned and storied companies know when change is needed. In 2009, Shawn Sweeney found himself in a brainstorming session with other leaders in the company discussing the culture and operations of Red Wing. Sweeney and Red Wing’s leadership team recognized that while the footwear product was still as high in quality as it had been when it was first handcrafted at the turn of the century, there was disconnect between departments and a need for better collaboration. Sweeney and the leadership team knew a “Reboot” was in order.

Sweeney, who describes his Reboot experience as one of the most rewarding initiatives he’s been a part of since joining Red Wing Shoes in 2002, says changing that mind-set started with breaking down silos. To start, members of the corporate office—from product development and supply chain to finance and customer experience—came together in one of Red Wing’s regions and broke into teams of three. From there, they experienced on the ground level what it’s like working in all aspects of Red Wing’s operations, including territory sales, retail operations personnel, and industrial and mobile sales.

Today, these Reboot sessions take place multiple times a year with new groups coming together across the United States to get a firsthand look at the company’s operations and meet other employees.

“It’s a really great bonding opportunity,” explains Sweeney, vice president of North America sales and operations, general manager, who also credits CEO Mark Urdahl for coming in with that vision to break down those silos. “They may have sat fifty feet away from somebody for five years and didn’t know their name or didn’t really know anything about them. After spending that week together, they bonded in a way that’s almost unbreakable. They had an incredible experience together. Now they’re talking to each other, and it’s like wildfire for the organization.”

As Sweeney explains, the results have been staggering, from improving collaboration to gaining a better perspective between departments. But Sweeney and his team also recognized that improving operations would directly impact consumers. A few years ago, Sweeney and his team launched another major initiative dubbed Red Wing for Business that transformed the company’s industrial branch.

To start, Red Wing Shoes launched a new POS system, as the company had been running a legacy system that was more than twenty years old, Sweeney says. On the surface, this appeared to be relatively simple, but Red Wing Shoes is a complex organization because it spans retail, wholesale, and industrial commerce. After ironing out the kinks, the impact has been immensely beneficial for the legacy company. The project has now moved the company to a digital voucher platform, as well as an e-commerce platform. All products are now available digitally, and the sales team is now able to speak about solutions with customers interested in purchasing large quantities of merchandise.

Sweeney also describes the multiyear process as a major victory in the company’s continued focus on collaboration. “As we broke down this twenty-year-old process, we put teams together to focus on each one of those elements,” Sweeney says. “We didn’t look at this as a business technology initiative.

We looked at it as a business process transformation more than anything. Throughout this process, we wanted to stay ahead of it and make sure our retailers and our consumers who are going to be using the system understood what we were doing and how it was going to impact them for the future.”

While Red Wing’s silos were broken down and its systems were transformed, one aspect has remained the same: the company’s values. One of the factors that attracted Sweeney to Red Wing was its family-focused atmosphere, support, and respect for one another. Sweeney says that starts at the top, as the company’s chairman Bill Sweasy routinely says he doesn’t want Red Wing to be the biggest company in the world, but he does want it to be the best.

“Excellence is something we strive for here. That is in our culture,” Sweeney says. “We focus on being great and making a difference in people’s lives. That’s our driving motto. Any company that’s grown as much as we have and what we’ve experienced, especially the last few years, would have to evolve. But our culture is sort of the dirt of the organization, and it hasn’t changed dramatically. In the end, it’s about the people.”

Sweeney also echoes the guiding principles of Red Wing Shoes, which include respect, integrity, excellence, community, and working together as a high-performing team. It’s these same principles and a tireless work ethic that were instilled upon Sweeney at a young age by his father, who was a salesman himself.

“He would say to me, ‘Son, you wake up every day unemployed until you sell something.’ Some people may think that sounds harsh, but to me it wasn’t at all,” Sweeney says, adding that his dad was one of the funniest and kindest people he’s ever known. “It could actually be related to anything you do. You need to make a difference. You need to show value and be accountable.”

Today, Sweeney shares a variety of the lessons with his team that his father shared with him, such as treating others the way you want to be treated, being fair, transparent and forthright in your dealings with others to be successful, and doing what you need to do to provide for your family.

At the turn of the century, Red Wing was founded as a way to provide boots that kept workers safe. But those same values have always held true for the storied company. Today, all products are still hand-crafted. And while the bottom line for any company is important, it’s caring for one another and supporting a strong culture built on family values that have promoted far more than dollars and cents.

“Family is what Red Wing is all about. Red Wing is about our community,” he says. “And it’s about our own personal families as well. So that’s my dad. Really for me, it comes down to what family means to me because of how my dad engaged and how he took care of his family.”

Photo: Stephanie Rau

PUT YOUR BEST FOOT FORWARD

Family values and giving back to the community are ingrained in the culture of Red Wing Shoes, which is especially important to Shawn Sweeney. One of the most successful charitable organizations in the Red Wing area of Minnesota for decades has been the Red Wing Shoe Company Foundation, which was formed in 1955.

The first gift was $6,000 to the Red Wing YMCA, and since 1955, the foundation has given more than $2 million to the YMCA. In addition to the strong partnership with that organization, the Foundation has also enjoyed a significant partnership with the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center and the T.B. Sheldon Auditorium.