Wenceslas Square, in addition to its other noteworthy landmarks, contains an enormous shoe store with an illuminated sign reading “Baťa”. Visits to other countries reveal that they, too, offer Baťa shoes (though without the accent on the “t”). Raymond Chandler’s novel The High Window mentions a character wearing Bata shoes.
Who was Baťa, and how did he become famous around the world?
Tomáš Baťa was a member of a family that had a long history in shoemaking, which was to stand him in good stead. When he was 14, he began a career as a shoe salesman. At the ripe old age of 18, he founded T. & A. Bata Shoe Company with his brother Antonín and his sister Anna in their home town of Zlín. The date was August 24, 1894; they used money inherited from their mother, who died when Tomáš was only ten years old.
The following year, faced with mounting debts, Tomáš made the decision to start producing shoes from canvas, rather than leather. It was a gamble, and a successful one. Two years later, Tomáš had repaid all his debts. Ten years after the company was founded, Tomáš traveled to the United States, where he worked on an assembly line. Returning to Zlín, he implemented this form of production in his factory. Widely available and affordable, his shoes were popular in several countries.
In 1908, Antonín died of tuberculosis, and Anna married. Tomáš ran the company with the help of two other brothers, Bohuš and Jan. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Baťa factory in Zlín was busy filling orders for military shoes (50,000 pairs, according to one source). Stores opened around the area, in cities that would, by the end of the war, belong to the newly-created Czechoslovakia (Plzeň, Prague, Liberec, and Zlín, to name a few).
When the war ended, shoes were not a high priority for most people. Money had to go on the necessities, such as food, medicine, and rent. Realizing the problems facing most consumers, Baťa lowered the price of his shoes by as much as 50 percent. He also decreased wages for his employees, but offered them various discounts. Baťa came up with what came to be known as “Baťa prices” – a price that ends not in a zero, but in a nine. It worked. In 1923, there were 112 branches belonging to his company. That same year, Baťa became the mayor of Zlín.
During the Roaring ‘20s, Baťa’s business boomed, and his wealth skyrocketed. In Zlín, he had housing built for his workers along with the factory and production lines. During the ‘20s, the little community even received its own hospital. The main factory comprised thirty buildings by the end of 1928.
Meanwhile, Baťa’s philanthropic efforts were visible everywhere. Seven new schools were constructed in Zlín between 1924 and 1932. Baťa renovated the city’s historical center in 1929. Workers at his company worked only five days a week (it was Baťa himself who implemented this then-new procedure).
The number of Baťa branches was enormous. He had branches in Poland, England, Germany, the Netherlands, India, France, and the United States, among other countries. On July 12, 1932, Tomáš Baťa
climbed aboard a plane to fly to the opening of a new branch in Switzerland, despite the foggy weather. The plane crashed, killing Baťa and the pilot.
The business carried on without him, run by his equally philanthropic brother, Jan. It was Jan who helped many Jewish workers escape occupied Czechoslovakia by posting them to branches overseas. When Prague was occupied by the Nazis, Jan escaped and emigrated to Brazil. Tomáš Baťa’s son, also named Tomáš, fled in 1939 and made his home in Canada. He rebuilt the family firm, which had been dealt a heavy blow with the coming of communist rule to Eastern Europe. Expanding to new markets, the company was on firm footing once again.
Tomáš Baťa’s legacy lives on; not just in the strong family company, but in the example he set for the proper treatment of employees. He stated: “It is remarkable that we can find the greatest number of wealthy tradesmen and a population on a high standard of living in countries with a high level of business morality. On the other hand, we can find poor tradesmen and entrepreneurs and an impoverished population in countries with a low standard of business morality. This is natural because these people concentrate on cheating one another instead of trying to create value.
“We are granting you the profit share not because we feel a need to give money to the people just out of the goodness of the heart. No, we are aiming at other goals by this step. By this measure we want to reach a further decrease of production costs. We want to reach the situation that the shoes are cheaper and workers earn even more. We think that our products are still too expensive and worker’s salary too low.”