Little Czech cobbler becomes 'the Ford of the shoe'

TOMAS BATA (1875-1932)

On July 12, 1932, at four o'clock in the morning, Tomas Bata (pronounced: Badja) wanted to take his private plane from his private airport to Zurich to visit his son.

A thick fog hung over the airfield so the pilot advised to wait. 'But,' according to a weekly newspaper of the time,

'Tomas Bata tolerated no contradiction, not even from the elements of nature.' A few moments later, the plane crashed into a factory chimney. Bata and his pilot were killed instantly.

The shoe manufacturer left behind an industrial empire that had hardly any equal in Europe. In the commemorations of those days, he was honored as 'the Ford of the shoe' and 'the Ford of Europe'.

The Moravian village of Zlin with its 2000 inhabitants had meanwhile grown into an industrial city, called Bataville, with 30,000 inhabitants. The company employed 20,000 workers and made 36 million shoes a year.

Today, Bata, headquartered in Toronto, Canada, boasts 56 shoe factories and 14 tanneries, 6,300 stores in 60 countries, approximately 70,000 employees and an annual turnover of approximately $3 billion. What secret does this success hold?

Tomas's father was a simple village cobbler who sent his son around the surrounding villages with a backpack
there to sell slippers and clogs door to door. In 1894, at the age of eighteen, he set up a factory together with his brother and sister in what was then called the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.

Seven years later, he traveled to Austria, Germany and the United States to learn more about shoe factories. As World War I approached, he managed to seize the gigantic army commands from Vienna.

At the height of the war, he employed 5,000 workers. Despite the collapse of the economy, 1800 people were still employed in 1923. The assembly line was also introduced in that year.

At the time of his death, the company in Zlin had 32 buildings in which Bata made everything himself: paper and cardboard, printing, chemicals and machines.


It was remarkable that he had also built his own city for his workers with textile food shops, restaurants, banquet halls, a hospital, a railway station, sports fields and his own airport.

Bata had created a city within the state, of which he himself was the despotically ruling mayor in the 1930s. He dealt with the two local newspapers as if they were his personal property.

The world was his field of action. On Labor Day, just before his death, he had declared in front of 25,000 audience: 'There are a billion people in this world who don't wear shoes. We have not had any contact with them yet, we do not know their language.

It is our job and that of our children to come into contact with this immense crowd and to find new markets.'

Organisationally, Bata applied a system that in those days was labeled 'scientific': he eliminated all intermediaries, perfected the equipment and rationalized the labor and production process.

Its great strength was the introduction of the assembly line, following the lead of the American car manufacturers in Detroit.

Hence the nicknames for Bata that referred to Ford. Each department – there were 250 – operated independently and had to be profitable on its own.

Large banners were hung throughout the factory with slogans invented by Tomas Bata himself, such as: 'I don't know any exploited, only employees', 'Have a purpose in your life', 'I don't work for me but for you!', 'Be cheerful. !' or "Think!" A female worker who was seen on the street after ten o'clock in the evening had to be brought to justice by the vice squad.

A special commission controlled the expenditure of each individual and of women in particular.


In 1934 a comparable factory colony for 2000 men was established in Best in the Netherlands near Eindhoven. In the middle of the crisis years, the employees got a permanent job, good housing and good wages.

They had to put up with far-reaching tutelage, strict social control and an almost military-style work discipline. When world production shifted to developing countries in the 1970s, Best was drastically slimmed down.

In 1978 the company sold part of the land and the vacant buildings to the expanding municipality of Best. From then on, Bata focused on the production of safety footwear in the Netherlands: protective shoes, boots and socks. Today it still employs 275 people.

The last Bata stores in the Netherlands closed permanently in 1996. Although a year later a sales center for wholesalers in the Benelux was opened in Best. A few dozen of the Czechs who settled in Best in the 1930s have continued to live.

According to testimonials from former employees from Best, Bata had to work extremely hard and the human interaction left much to be desired. The Czechs were lord and master: 'If a Dutch employee took a pair of shoelaces home, he was immediately fired.

A Czech who had an entire house furnished at the company's expense was not put in the way.' Or: 'It's not for nothing that quite a few employees became stressed.

In such a case, the doctors and specialists said: “Oh, you work at Bata.

Then go for a walk in the woods to relax a bit.”' And in connection with the vaunted five-day week: 'If the weekly production was not achieved, people were "allowed" to come back on Saturday and it was no exception if that Sunday "should". Of course without payment.'


Bata was succeeded after his death by his half-brother Jan and by his son Tomas ii, who was barely 18. After a serious quarrel, Tomas ii moved in 1938 with his mother and eighty families from Zlin to Canada, where the factory village of Batawa (to Ottawa) was founded.

From there he started building a world empire according to his father's philosophy. In 1984 Thomas iii in turn became the largest shoemaker and shoe seller in the world.

In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, a dream of Tomas II, now in his 80s, came true.

Instead of insisting on restitution of the former Bata property in his homeland, he bought 29 Czech state shops plus a small shoe factory for ten million dollars. In 1994 the chain had already grown to 43 locations.

Today, Bata also works under license for Nike, Adidas, Mephisto and other well-known shoe brands. In its own words, the firm has sold more than 14 billion pairs of shoes in the past 100 years: placed in a row thirty times the distance between Earth and Moon.

However, turnover figures remain secret. In that respect, the group is considered one of the most mysterious in the world. Because it is not a listed company, but a family business with an irreparable worldwide network of companies, Bata has hardly any public obligations.