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Murphy steps down from Shoe Co.

Red Wing Shoe Co. President and CEO Dave Murphy will retire at the end of the month after nearly 15 years with the company. Senior Vice President Mark Urdahl will be his replacement. (Submitted photo)

Shortly after moving from General Mills to Red Wing Shoe Co. in 2001, Dave Murphy said he had an experience that made him realize the wide-reaching legacy of the local brand.

While on vacation with his family in Italy, Murphy — then the Shoe’s new president and chief operating officer — discovered their tour guide owned a pair of Red Wing 877 work boots.

“He wore an 11 1/2. I remember because I sent him a pair,” Murphy said. “We drew his foot and I took it back and sent him a pair.”

For nearly 15 years, Murphy — now CEO — said it was his mission to lead the footwear company and “leave the campground a little cleaner and better than when I came.” Having made his mark, the 63-year-old executive will retire at the end of the month.

He will be replaced by Mark Urdahl, senior vice president, who was chosen during a yearslong transition process to prepare for Murphy’s departure.

“It’s an incredible honor to have worked for this company,” Murphy said Thursday in the corporate headquarters on Main Street. “It’s emotional in that sense, but I’m feeling so satisfied and fulfilled in my career here and my relationship with the organization.”

Murphy was at General Mills for two decades when he joined the Shoe’s board of directors at the request of former CEO Bill Sweasy. He was hired on to the company a few years later.

Though many of the same management skills applied to shoes as they did cereal, Murphy said he enjoyed learning about the retail business and the craft of shoemaking.

“I didn’t count on shoe expertise from me. We have shoe experts, good ones,” he said. “I would say I don’t make any shoes and I don’t sell any shoes — my goal is just make their jobs easier to do.”

Hard decisions

Murphy said one of his stand-out decisions as boss happened during his first year with the company.

“It started to be clear that a new product we were making here in Red Wing caused heel bite, when you get a blister on your heel,” he said. Despite the economic consequences, Murphy ordered the production stopped and for dealers and customers to be notified there would not be any shipments for a while.

“I said I’d rather make no shoes than bad shoes,” he added.

Murphy said it was important for him to honor the 110-year-old company and its Sweasy family owners. That meant learning some tough lessons, like the time he was in Bill Sweasy’s “doghouse” for firing an independent sales representative over the phone instead of in person.

“Bill called me and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again.’ And he was right,” Murphy said. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

Though he looks forward to having more time to spend with his four granddaughters and pursuing interests in photography and skiing, Murphy said he intends to continue on numerous boards for non- and for-profit organizations in the Twin Cities. He also is in talks to join the Shoe’s board of directors.

His local involvement also includes Every Hand Joined, United Way and YMCA, and Murphy said he will try to stay in touch with the Red Wing community as much as he can.

“I certainly wouldn’t characterize my retirement as go to Florida and golf,” he said.

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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