Heart and Sole: The Story of Bata
In the summer of 1895, Zlín shoemaker Tomáš Baťa was broke. To save money, Baťa began making shoes from canvas instead of leather. The desperate move paid off, and the company grew from 10 employees to 50 within a few years. Four years later, Baťa installed its first steam-driven machines, beginning a period of rapid modernization. In 1904, Baťa introduced mechanized production techniques that allowed the Bata Shoe Company to become one of the first mass producers of shoes in Europe. By 1912, Bata was employing 600 full-time workers, plus another several hundred who worked out of their homes in neighboring villages.
During World War I, Baťa’s employees increased ten times thanks to large military contracts. In 1914, The company opened its own stores in Zlín, Prague, Liberec, Vienna and Pilsen, among other towns.
In the global economic slump that followed World War I, newly formed Czechoslovakia was particularly hard hit. With its currency devalued by 75%, demand for products dropped, production was cut back, and unemployment was at an all-time high. Baťa responded to the crisis by cutting the price of Bata shoes in half.
The company’s workers agreed to a temporary 40 percent reduction in wages; in turn, Bata provided food, clothing and other necessities at half-price. He also introduced one of the first profit sharing initiatives, transforming all employees into associates with a shared interest in the company’s success.
Consumer response to the price drop was dramatic. While most competitors were forced to close because of the crisis in demand between 1923 and 1925, Bata was expanding as demand for the inexpensive shoes grew rapidly. The Bata Shoe Company increased production and hired more workers. Zlín became a veritable factory town, a “Bataville” covering several acres of land. On the site were grouped tanneries, a brickyard, a chemical factory, a mechanical equipment plant and repair shop, workshops for the production of rubber, a paper pulp and cardboard factory (for production of packaging), a fabric factory (for lining for shoes and socks), a shoe-shine factory, a power plant and a farming activities to cover both food and energy needs. Essentially, a self-sufficient community. Workers, or “Batamen”, and their families had at their disposal all the necessary everyday life services: housing, shops, schools, hospital, etc.
Baťa also set what became known as Baťa prices – numbers ending with a nine rather than with a whole number.
In 1932, at the age of 56, Tomáš Baťa died in a plane crash during take off under bad weather conditions at Zlín Airport. Control of the company was passed to his half-brother, Jan, and his son, Tomáš Jan Baťa, who would go on to lead the company for much of the twentieth century guided by their father’s moral testament: the Bata Shoe company was to be treated not as a source of private wealth, but as a public trust, a means of improving living standards within the community and providing customers with good value for their money.
At the time of Tomáš Baťa ‘s death, the firm owned 300 stores in North America, a thousand in Asia, more than 4,000 in Europe. In 1938, the Group employed just over 65,000 people worldwide, including 36% outside Czechoslovakia and had stakes in the tanning, agriculture, newspaper publishing, railway and air transport, textile production, coal mining and aviation realms.
After World War II, governments in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland and Yugoslavia confiscated and nationalized Bata factories, stripping Bata of its Eastern European assets. From its new base in Canada, the company gradually rebuilt itself, expanding into new markets throughout Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. Rather than organizing these new operations in a highly centralized structure, Bata established a confederation of autonomous units that could be more responsive to new markets in developing countries.
After the Velvet Revolution in November 1989, it’s said that Tomáš J. Baťa arrived as soon as December 1989.
Bata stores began to reappear in the newly formed Czech Republic, and even though Bata is now a global company with over 65,000 employees, Czech’s still affectionately think of Bata as their own.
There are several Bata stores throughout Prague.
Here’s a list…
Palladium: Náměstí Republiky 1, Prague 1
Václavské náměstí 6, Prague 1
Palác Flora: Vinohradská 151, Prague 3
Moskevská 27, Prague 10