Getnet Marsha walked 555 miles in his bare feet when he fled Ethiopia at 14. So there’s a certain irony in how he makes his living.

To frequent fliers at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, he is the shoeshine man, known by his nickname Getu (pronounced Gay-Too).

Chuck Spencer of Princeton, N.J., calls his work “the best shine in the country.” Harry Baldwin of Mooresville waits until he flies somewhere to get his shoes shined – and wears a different pair each time he flies. Dave Bryant, a former Marine from Concord, appreciates the military-style polish and also this:

The “happy heart” Getu and his staff bring to their work.

Rod Ross was so inspired by Getu and his philosophy about life and business that he invited him to speak to his IT services leadership team at Microsoft. Sixty people. Crowded into a big conference room.

Getu, 45, brought tears to their eyes.

“We were in a situation where a lot was changing,” Ross said. “People didn’t know whether to embrace the change or resist it. I felt like his story would create the kind of contrast people would appreciate….

“He talked about growing up in Ethiopia and making the long journey on foot, and the fact that not everybody survived. He talked about getting to the U.S. and what it meant to him.”

Getu also shared his simple, yet effective business philosophy: “He said that every single person who leaves their business, the shine on their shoes is the brand of their business.”

‘Love and compassion’

You might say Getu is in the business of resurrecting soles – and souls. He can coax a smile from a customer as deftly as he coaxes a shine from a shoe. This from a man who suffered hunger and thirst – and bloodied feet – as he fled his homeland for Sudan in 1984. Communists were in control of Ethiopia then, with widespread famine and civil unrest, and Getu went off in search of a better life.

“We walked day and night,” he said. “It was very hard. But finally – God is good – we made it.”

He found that better life in the United States where he immigrated eight years later as a political refugee. He is now a U.S. citizen. He learned the shoeshine business at Denver International Airport’s Executive Shine and became so adept at what he does – shining shoes and managing people – that owner Jill Wright put him in charge in Charlotte in 2006.

“Love and compassion. That’s how we do it,” Getu said. “We do it from the heart. People come not just to get a shine, but to talk with us.”

He oversees a crew of 33 at three airport kiosks. His staff described Getu as generous and patient. “He loves on them and they’re really, really loyal to him,” Wright said. “He does a great job. I never have to worry about anything.”

A smile and a shoeshine

Getu is slightly built but projects a larger presence with his warm smile and sense of humor. Beneath his slacks, the toes of black wingtips shine; beneath his fingernails, a line of shoe polish lingers. He speaks English well – he’s an amateur playwright – but because of his heavy accent, you must listen carefully.

Be sure to listen. Getu dispenses wisdom with each shine.

“When you have an open heart and mind, people always have something to leave.”

“You must be positive. That’s the way of winning.”

“You say thank you for everybody who makes a difference in your life.”

Secrets behind the shine

Some days, people are waiting in line when Getu arrives at work at 6 a.m.

A regular customer once brought extra suitcases filled with shoes to be shined while he was traveling – 49 pairs. One new customer gambled on a shine to resurrect an old pair of shoes and was so impressed with the result, he tipped Getu the $100 he planned to spend on new shoes.

Getu follows a 12-step process, his hands dancing rhythmically across a customer’s shoes, stripping off old wax with dry-cleaning fluid, rubbing conditioner into the cleaned leather, then dye, then new wax. His pièce de résistance? He lights a small blow torch and heats the leather, opening the pores, allowing the polish to soak in.

Next comes the spit shine, but instead of spit he sprays water. “We call it holy water,” he jokes. With a rag wrapped around two fingers, he massages the damp leather. Then he buffs it with a pair of old black pantyhose, applies a seal of neutral wax, then buffs some more.

​A shine takes about 10 minutes. Harry Baldwin makes a point of arriving at the airport with at least that much time to spare before boarding his flight.

“Like new!” Baldwin said one recent morning as he walked away in shiny Cole Haans.​

Always giving back
When Getu spoke at Microsoft, Ross asked him to name his speaker’s fee. Getu told him what he tells his customers at Executive Shine: “Whatever you think is right.”

Ross wrote a check for $800. At Getu’s request, he made it payable to Addis Hiwot Ethiopian Evangelical Church, which Getu and his family attend.

“That’s what I learned from the American people,” Getu said. “Share what you have.”

Getu’s wife, Zaid, also shines shoes at the airport. They met in Kenya and she followed him to Denver, where they married. “He loves to make people happy,” she said. They live in Matthews with their 16-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.

One day, they brought the kids to work.

“I wanted them to understand how we devote a living, how we put food on the table,” Getu said. “I don’t want them to take anything for granted. That’s what I teach my kids.”

Getu doesn’t take his American life for granted. Every month, he sends money back to Ethiopia, to a group of 42 friends and family. A committee of three decides how it will be dispersed, based on need.

It makes him happy.