My June road trip began on the longest day of the year—Summer Solstice. I took an evening flight from Chicago to Minneapolis, then settled into my rental car for the 50 minute drive to Red Wing, MN. The sky was still bright as I made my way out of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area into the rolling hills and limestone bluffs along the Mississippi River. I was driving just a short portion of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway, which follows the course of the Mississippi River for 3,000 miles from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. As I came around a bend in the road, the opening in the trees framed a spectacular, glowing full moon. This particular full moon was very special. A full moon in June is often referred to as the Full Strawberry Moon, as native American tribes knew that it signified that strawberries were ripe for the picking. If that alone wasn’t special enough, this was the first time that there was a Strawberry Moon on the same day as the summer solstice since 1967. Over hills and around twists and turns, I followed this extraordinary moon nearly all the way to Red Wing.
In 1857, Red Wing, named after a local Indian chief, was incorporated as a city. Less than 20 years later, the St. James Hotel opened to provide lodging in what was then the wheat-trading center of the world. Located within walking distance from the Red Wing train depot and the steamboat docks, the hotel was booked to capacity every night with travelers and boarders. The St. James cooks developed such a fantastic reputation that the railroad adjusted its timetables to allow passengers to disembark and enjoy dinners at the hotel. Today, the hotel retains its historic feel with one of a kind 19th century décor in each room. The comfy four poster bed in my room was a welcome respite after a long day, so I didn’t waste any time getting under the cozy quilt and falling sound asleep.
The next morning, I met Steve Lawrence, CEO of Lawrence NationaLease for breakfast in the hotel’s Veranda. In addition to great food, the Veranda also offered a panoramic view of the Mississippi River. Over breakfast, Steve told me about the history of Lawrence NationaLease. They have been in business for over 50 years, and remarkably, have customers they have been doing business with since 1957. We drove over to the headquarters of Lawrence NationaLease, where I joined Bill Schultz, Howard Ketel, Bob Dalland, and Colin McGlynn for their management meeting, then met the rest of the Red Wing staff and toured the facility. I spent some time talking with each of them about their specific areas of the business: sales with Colin, warranty with Casey, fuel tax with Sue, licensing with Amy, accounting with Cindy and Karen. In the afternoon, Bill drove me to Rochester, where Lawrence has 2 locations. We visited both locations, and I had the chance to learn more about Lawrence’s logistics and dedicated contract carriage business from Eric Lawrence. Before leaving Rochester, Bill drove me through downtown and showed me what Rochester is best known for–Mayo Clinic. It is a truly impressive campus, spanning most of the downtown area of Rochester. It has grown considerably from its start as Dr. Mayo’s medical practice in 1863, to a medical system that served over 1.3 million patients last year. Back in Red Wing, Bill and I met up with Steve and several of the others for cocktails and a lovely dinner at Oliver’s Wine Bar in the historic shopping district.
Usually when I mention Red Wing, the first thing everyone says is “Oh, like Red Wing Shoes?” Yes, that’s exactly right, and the next day, I had a chance to visit the corporate offices of the ubiquitous shoe company. In 1905, Charles Beckman saw a local necessity for shoes specifically designed for the demanding work of industries such as mining, logging and farming. The rigors of these jobs required footwear which was tough enough to outlast harsh working conditions, but Beckman envisioned a shoe that was also comfortable enough for the hardworking people who wore them. Beckman set out to develop work boots to fill this need. Red Wing Shoes is one of those long-time customers of Lawrence NationaLease, who provides them with trucks fitted as mobile shoe stores. These shoe trucks go to work sites so that employees can purchase these tough, yet comfortable work boots right on site. Across the street from the corporate offices is one of the largest Red Wing Shoes stores, which is also home to the World’s Largest Boot (size 638 ½ D)! Bill and I met Steve for lunch at another of the fantastic restaurants in downtown Red Wing, the Staghead Gastropub, where I had some of the most delicious deviled eggs I have ever eaten. After lunch, Bill and I drove to Owatonna, where we visited another fascinating customer, Bushel Boy. The facility is a 24 acre greenhouse that is absolutely filled with tomato plants. They have created the perfect growing environment for tomatoes, using the latest in greenhouse design and technology. It allows them to pick the tomatoes ripe on the vine, year-round, so that they can provide fresh, ripe tomatoes to local stores, versus ones that were picked green, and shipped thousands of miles to ripen in a crate. Lawrence provides them temperature-controlled trucks that they use to deliver these vine-ripened tomatoes to area grocery stores. Just down the road, we stopped at Lawrence’s Owatonna facility, where I got a chance to meet with the staff there. I headed back to Red Wing for one last night at the St. James.
From the Strawberry Moon to vine-ripened tomatoes, I got to see a lot of unique and interesting things in Red Wing. Most interesting of all was the way that Lawrence NationaLease is integrated into the very fiber of the communities they serve. The relationships aren’t just one company doing business with another company, they are people helping other people to accomplish their goals. Whether making sure people have comfortable work shoes, or healthy produce, or anything else that is delivered on a truck, NationaLease members across the country take the same approach to helping their customers. They have been part of their communities for decades, and their histories are intertwined with the histories of the towns and businesses there. And through the NationaLease network, those communities are all connected to each other, allowing NationaLease’s customers to have the benefit of those same relationships, no matter how far from home those deliveries may take them. As one of the vintage NationaLease posters on my office wall says, “No matter where you go, there we are.”