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Sweasy steps down

Bill Sweasy, who was the third Red Wing Shoe Co. CEO in his family history, retired at the end of February. He will continue to serve as chairman of the board.

Bill Sweasy no longer has an office at the company his grandfather helped develop more than 100 years ago. The Red Wing Shoe Co. CEO officially retired as at the end of February.

Now, as he steps down, colleague Dave Murphy said there's one thing in particular Sweasy will be remembered for: his "moral compass."

"He'll take the high road every time," Murphy said. "Regardless to the implications of his own financial situation, he will always take the high road, never the easy road."

That's evident in one of the first things Sweasy helped change when he took over leadership of the company nearly 30 years ago: creating a safe work environment.

Back then, the plants still did piece work, Sweasy said. That meant that employees were paid based on how many pieces they made. Older, more experienced employees often worked in the hardest, fastest-moving jobs because they were the highest paying.

That system led to a lot of cumulative trauma, such as elbow, thumb and wrist injuries.

"I said, 'We have to create a safe work environment and eliminate piece work," Sweasy said.

Creating that safer working environment meant decreased productivity and efficiency.

"We're not working fast. We're working smart," Sweasy said.

But with all the changes to technology and products over the years, Sweasy said there is one thing that hasn't changed during his time with the Shoe.

"We've tried pretty much to stick to things that we're good at," he said. "You haven't seen us branch out on strange things. We spend most of our time working on what makes us different and sets us apart."

That, Sweasy said, is making high-quality shoes. The fact that Red Wing Shoes are recognized as being what Sweasy calls "the gold standard" is one of his favorite parts about working for the company.

"That just makes you proud to be associated with it," Sweasy said, adding that he credits the work of those before him with making the Shoe brand what it is.

"To be able to come into a company that has that going for it ... that's sort of gratifying," he said.

Sweasy started working part time for the Shoe when he was 14 years old. His first job?

"Clearing weeds out of the pond," he said.

Sweasy's other early roles during summers off from school included plenty of time in the manufacturing plants -- including a three-month stint in California learning how to make leather.

Still, it wasn't always Sweasy's intention to spend his career working for the company his father and grandfather helped run. In fact, he studied engineering and computer science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

"I probably did not decide to come here until my junior or senior year of college," he said, adding that he had considered a career with IBM.

But after graduation, Sweasy said "it just looked like there would be opportunities here."

He joined the Shoe full time in April 1976, working in the human resources department. Sweasy moved up to president in 1986 before becoming CEO in 1991.

Now, after more than four decades with the company, Sweasy, 60, said it's time to move on.

"It's feeling like at this point, they can certainly do it as well, if not better, without me here," he said. "I've been doing this so long, I've been burned out on the day-to-day."

With Sweasy's retirement, Murphy will add CEO to his job title. It's a task he said he's humbled to take on.

"I consider it an incredible honor," Murphy said. "Now that my title is CEO, that's less critical than knowing that he's entrusting me with the leadership."

Murphy said he'll be the first person in decades who is not in the Sweasy family to hold the title.

"I'm really honored that he would even consider me worthy of holding that title in a company that's so import to his legacy and his family's legacy," Murphy said.

The fact that the title won't be passed down to his children doesn't bother Sweasy in the least, he said.

Daughter Allison Marie Gettings has started her own shoe line called Alli Marie (which is independent from the Shoe). Son William is working part time at a Red Wing Shoe store and has plans to open a brewery.

"It's their choice. It's not mine," Sweasy said. "My feeling is to help them pursue their dreams rather than to live mine."

Looking forward, Sweasy said retirement simply means an end of the day-to-day work at the Shoe.

"I'm going to spend more time with family," he said, adding that he will also spend plenty of time being outdoors -- one of his favorite hobbies.

But retirement doesn't mean Sweasy will no longer be involved with the Shoe. He will continue serving as chairman of the board.

That is a role, Sweasy said, that will allow him to direct the company in a much more broad way than he was able to as CEO. He said he'll define the company's success -- rather than create it -- and look after its culture -- rather than deal with day-to-day "speed bumps."

"It's all about being custodian of the brand and image as opposed to doing the work," Sweasy said of the difference between CEO and chairman. "It's more the architect than the builder."

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.