A worker places irregularly shaped dies on the heavy tanned cowhide as if he were laying cookie cutters on dough, then lowers the pressure arm to cut.
He raises the arm and places the dies again. Lower. Cut. Raise. Move. He works around an area where a cattle brand damaged the leather, saving the scraps to be recycled into fertilizer.
About 3-1/2 hours and 150 to 225 operations later, the full-grain leather pieces will be a pair of Red Wing boots or work shoes.
While the U.S. shoe industry has been consolidating for decades as it loses market to overseas manufacturers - Red Wing Shoe Co. has continued to grow in its niche, specialized work shoes.
In addition to two factories in Red Wing that produce about 10,000 pairs of shoes daily, the company in 1994 purchased plants in Potosi, Mo., and Danville, Ky., that together make about 12,000 pairs of shoes each week.
Bill Sweasy, chairman and chief executive, said the company has experienced slow but steady growth. Although he declined to release specific figures for the privately-held company, he said estimates of 1996 revenues approaching $300 million were “in the ballpark.”
Red Wing has more than 2,500 employees - about 2,000 in its shoe manufacturing operations, 400 at its tannery in Red Wing and 150 at the downtown St. James Hotel, also part of the company.
While Red Wing’s growth has continued, overall American shoe production has dropped about 5 percent annually over the past 10 years, according to Footwear Industries of America. About 90 percent of the shoes bought in the United States last year were imported - mainly from China.
One reason for Red Wing’s growth is the focus on work shoes, Sweasy said. Only about half of the work shoes sold in the United States are imported, he said.
“What we offer would be very difficult to offer as an import item,” Sweasy said. “We have 150 styles of just work shoes in sizes 4 to 18,” he said. At least 85 percent of the Red Wing line is work shoes - though they may look like wingtips, loafers, athletic shoes or hiking boots.
“A lot is built into our shoes that you don’t need for fashion,” Sweasy said of the rugged, sturdy shoes designed for people who spend the day on their feet and want their shoes to last.
Many of the styles have been in the line for years. Red Wing’s original Irish Setter 9-inch high lace-up boot was introduced in 1948. The boot that cost $12.65 in 1955 now retails for $182 and remains popular, Sweasy said.
“You can get a shoe that matches your use. A welder doesn’t wear the same type of shoe as a person who works in a warehouse. Some shoes are better on rocks, some on mud. Some can work with caustic chemicals, some with metal chips,” he said.
Red Wing has shoes designed for letter carriers, loggers, factory workers, farmers and firefighters. There are shoes with steel toes, boots with metatarsal guards and boots with gaiters designed to jam chain saw teeth on contact.
Some boots have soles designed to protect against electrical hazard; others have metal plates in the soles to protect firefighters when they step on nails in burning buildings.
“There’s no way you could offer that and source overseas,” Sweasy said.
All Red Wing brand shoes sold in the United States - at prices ranging from $90 to $250 - are made in the country, Sweasy said. Red Wing’s Irish Setter hunting and outdoor footwear, to be spun off as a separate division this year, also is made in the United States.
But the company has hedged its bets. Some Red Wings sold outside the United States are made in Mexico and elsewhere, Sweasy said. All of its popular Vasque hiking boots (about 10 percent of the company’s sales) are made by contractors overseas.
About 15 percent of Red Wing Shoe Co.’s sales are outside the United States, with Japan the biggest customer, Sweasy said.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: A look at Red Wing Some facts about Red Wing Shoe Co.: Founded: 1905 by German immigrant Charles H. Beckman CEO: Bill Sweasy Jr., third generation of Sweasy family to head the privately-held company Sales: Estimated at $293 million in 1996 (about 15 percent international) Employment: Shoe manufacturing - 2,000; tannery - 400; St. James Hotel - 150 Factories: Red Wing, Minn. (2); Potosi, Mo.; Danville, Ky. Product: Work shoes and boots for men and women Major brands: Red Wing, Irish Setter (introduced 1948), Vasque (introduced 1965-made overseas); Worx brand now in test markets. U.S. sales: By 4,200 Red Wing dealers, about 400 Red Wing Shoe Stores (half company owned) and 1,800 Vasque dealers International sales: Through distributors in more than 100 countries Retail price: $90 to $250 -Associated Press