THE FABULOUS SHOEMAKER
A billion had bare feet so old Tom Bata stretched his cobbler’s kingdom from Zlin to Zanzibar. Tom, Jr., has stepped into his seven-league boots
TEN YEARS ago the section of Ontario's rolling Treat Valley that winds down from the Oak Hills past cobwebby little Frankford
and on to Trenton was so much picturesque pastureland. Rats scurried across dust-laden, rusting machinery behind boarded-up factory windows symbols of a depression that had slowly strangled this once prosperous area. White-haired stationmaster J. E. Finnegan watched the tiny trickle of freight move past his CPR station and gloomily computed a 706,' drop in local transport in a decade.
Then, in the early summer of 1939, a cocky 24year-old Czech named Idiomas John Bata arrived in Frankford with a sheaf of blueprints tucked under his arm and a bank account that ran into eight ligures. «Scion of the world’s biggest shoemaking firm, and a candidate for Canadian cit izenship, Bata was about to build the nerve centre of a cobbler’s kingdom on a 1,500-acre slice of the Trent.
To Canadians Bata was, and still is, something of a conundrum. .Shoe manufacturers and union leaders had combined to oppose his entry into Canada. As ruler of a firm that sprawled over six continents he was hated and feared. His tight to bring in key machines and technical experts which he had slipped out of Nazi-held Czechoslovakia had only lieen won after top-level negotiations with the Canadian Government. Nonetheless, his coming was a shot in the arm to the little Ontario valley.
With the arrival of 80 Czech experts and their families, Bata rented Frankford’s derelict paper mill and started making shoes. The boom was on. Stationmaster Finnegan quadrupled his statf within a month, installed extra telegraph lines and
Teletypes. Bata himself subsidized local taxis so his workers could afford to ride in them to work.
Today a modern five-story factory juts up out of Trent Valley—a half million square feet of windows winking in the sun. On the black water tower on the roof the name “Bata” is painted in thick, white letters of characteristic script. Bata boasts that from boards to bricks all the building materials, except the glass, were made on the job by his workers.
The plant and its ring of worker residences is called Batawa, following the Bata principle of fixing the family name in their factory towns. Elmer Johnson, a Brockville, Ont., shoe manufacturer, remarked after a visit to Bata plants in England and Switzerland: “Once you’ve seen one Bata factory, you’ve seen them all.” Batawa was built from Czechoslovakian blueprints, sneaked out of the country a few hours ahead of the 1938 Nazi putsch. Dozens of other factories all over the world have been built from the same blueprints.
Thus the Bata world organization—from Kwantung’s crowded port city of Dairen to Brazzaville, deep in French Equatorial Africa—is a hundredfold duplication of one tiny Ontario town. Bata has 35 factories in Europe, 32 in Africa, 20 in Asia (includes India, Australia), 20 in the Caribbean, six in the United States, and four in South America. His retail shoe outlets follow a similar pattern (example: 220 stores in France, 220 more in England).
The entire Bata organization is financed by the Bata Foundation set up in Switzerland. However, each factory is a separate entity. Young Tom Bata keeps his shoe empire growing by sending men out with cash and an order. Recently he sent a lone Canadian to Dakar, West Africa, with orders to build a rubber-shoe factory and run it with native labor. He gave no further instructions.
If a Bata factory needs more funds it can borrow from the Bata Foundation or from another Bata factory, giving shares in return. Thus the organization is a complicated tangle of interwoven companies and separate units. Exactly how many there are Bata himself doesn’t know. Right now control of the foundation is in dispute. Bata and stepuncle Jan (former pal of Hermann Goering) are battling for it in the courts.
Each continent or subcontinent has a separate governing organization. The Indian division is probably the biggest. Batanagar, an industrial city of 100,000, mushroomed up out of the jungle on the banks of the sacred Ganges, 30 miles from Calcutta. It contains 100 factory buildings, is only one of six Bata plants in India. One is a former raja’s palace.
Bata’s Indian factories produce a million pairs of shoes a week which are retailed through 650 Bata stores. As a come-on to India’s barefoot millions they are advertised as “admirable preventers of many diseases and snake bites.”
The seed of the Bata shoe industry was sown 300 years ago—about the same time that Champlain
MILLIONAIRE IMMIGRANT MAKES GOOD — LEAVES FROM TOM BATA’S ALBUM
was exploring the Trent River—when Lukius Batiu opened his cobbler’s shop in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. Since then all Batas (the name has changed) have been cobblers. But the world-wide organization is the product of Tom Bata’s father, the late Thomas Bata, Sr., who built it up largely because he was aghast at the fact that a billion people, half the world’s population, were barefoot. He changed the tiny Moravian town of Zlin into an industrial machine employing 150,000 persons.
Bata, Sr., who started making miniature shoes at five, quit school at 13 and ran away from home at 15, became one of the world’s richest men. Close friend of his country’s founder, Thomas Masaryk, he was a political as well as an industrial power. A top Czechoslovakian playwright wrote a play around him.
When he was mysteriously killed in an air crash in 1932 the wreckage of the plane (a two-seater Junkers) was painstakingly pieced together to make a shrine at which Batamen still worship yearly— on Founder’s Day, July 12.
Bata, Sr., was cocky. In his early days, when the powerful Baron of Zlin ordered him off his estate, he boasted that one day he’d take it over—castle and all. Ten years later he did. He was also blunt, fast-decisioned and direct. Angered by Swedish tariffs on shoes, he once ordered his executives to get the King of Sweden on the phone. Result: he and the King became friends; Bata built a factory in Sweden.
Young Tom Bata not only inherited his father’s world organization and his good looks, but also his bluntness. The other day in Batawa his executives were arguing the sales appeal of a new shoe line. Abruptly Bata broke in to ask each executive if he had fitted a pair of shoes on a customer in the last few years. None had. “Then,” observed Bata dryly, “we don’t know what we’re talking about here.” He promptly sent for the manager of his Trenton shoe store—who knew.
Another time startled executives reported that a new vulcanizing oven was so big it would be impossible to get it into the factory. “Impossible? Nonsense!” roared Bata. “Tear down the wall and it’ll go in!” It did.
The Barefoot Census
BATA, from new SR., shoe insisted designs on to okaying minor staff everything changes. So does Tom Bata, who even signs delivery chits for 30 shoes and personally approves his company’s publicity pamphlets. Once he ordered his printing plant to drop everything and make up 200 programs and song books for a banquet five hours away. They were ready on time.
Two weeks before last year’s International Trade Fair at Toronto, Bata cabled instructions from England to his Canadian publicity director, Art Duncan. He wanted an illustrated booklet on the history of the Bata Company ready for the fair.
Two days before opening day Bata arrived and was shown the book. He thumbed through it, didn’t like it, and ordered a completely new one ready by the next day. The perspiring publicity chief knew this was impossible. The books were already rolling off the presses.
Then Duncan learned that what Bata really objected to was a lone picture of himself in the middle of the book. Duncan ripped out the centre four pages and brought the “new” book in to Bata, who complimented him and okayed it.
Like his father, who once flew 6,000 miles to India and stood for days on a bridge spanning the Ganges watching feet to see how many people wore shoes, young Tom watches details in every corner of the world. Once he trekked through African villages for weeks counting bare feet.
Bata’s critics claim this preoccupation with detail is hurting the organization’s over-all operation. Said one ex-Bata foreman who now runs his own shoe factory: “The weakness of it is that the company is controlled by bookkeepers, not shoe mtn . . . top executives don’t know enough about shoes. For this reason the shoes aren’t as good as they could be, nor are
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their shoemaking methods . . . Bata’s methods are now old-fashioned and inferior to those of his competitors.”
Despite this, Bata does appear to insist on quality. Again he is stepping into his father’s shoes. Bata, Sr., once called back a million pairs of workmen's boots because of a structural defect. He advertised for their return in fullpage newspaper ads, promising an additional dollar above purchase price. He burned the lot.
Click With “The Red Shoes”
Following last year’s import ban, young Tom found himself with a big order for white rubber boots and no lacquer to finish them. He bought some Canadian-made lacquer and, to make good his delivery time, ordered it into production without the usual tests. (Bata is a stickler for getting orders out on time: he once sent his personal Buick 200 miles to deliver 30 pairs of shoes.) But customers found the lacquer peeled off after a day’s wearing. Bata called the boots in and burned them.
In the 10 years since Bata opened his Canadian factory the name “Bata” hasn’t appeared on his Canadian-made shoes, although it is on imported Bata shoes. Bata says this was because he did not consider them good enough. (Rivals say the foreign Bata name would have hurt his shoe sales.) They have been sold under more than a dozen trade names like Sunny Days, Feather Steps and Foot Gliders—now the largest selling teen-ager shoe on the market.
Today Bata believes his Canadian
Batamen have mastered the shoemaking trade and this spring the first Canadian - made, Bata - trademarked shoes make their appearance.
Like his father, Bata has the publicrelations sense. Bata, Sr., once hired a Czechoslovakian writer, Anthony Cekota to run 40-odd publications, including two daily newspapers which were used for political as well as business reasons. (Old Tom Bata was mayor of Zlin—his party held 32 out of 40 council seats.) Today Cekota works in Batawa (he’s assistant general manager) and Bata, Jr., has more than 200 papers and periodicals under his wing.
Bata’s advertising men know their stuff. Not long ago the firm was stuck with a load of red slippers. Bata’s hucksterish advertising boss, Canadian Jim Taylor, thought up a tie-up with the J. Arthur Rank color movie, “The Red Shoes.” Bata conferred with Rank personally in England, got exclusive publicity rights for his company. Off came the slipper's heels, on went a swatch of red ribbon, and the footwear became replicas of the red shoes. Bata is still selling red shoes as fast as he can make them.
Like his father, Bata has labor troubles, and, like his father, he has been called “a ruthless exploiter of labor.” Bata, Sr., introduced the hated “apprenticeship system,” under which young boys were quartered in youth camps and the cost of their lodgings deducted from their small earnings in his factory. Until they graduated as shoemakers, most of the rest of their earnings (less pay docks for wastages) were saved for them by the company.
Bata, Jr., has been accused of employing child labor in various parts of the world. He admits that in some of his African factories workers are con-
sidered to be 16—the legal working age —if they have hair under their armpits.
There are two unions at Batawa—a shoemakers’ union and a machinists’ union (AFL). At the moment of writing a new contract is being negotiated: the unions want a five-cent-
an-hour increase; statutory holidays and two weeks’ vacation with pay. (Present holidays: Christmas, Labor
Day, one week’s vacation.) Bata refused these demands and the issue went before a conciliation board.
Bata, Sr., sprinkled rock gardens and water fountains between his maIchines, and Bata, Jr., has followed this lead. At Zlin, where the factory buildings numbered 127 (the tallest: 17 stories), Bata, Sr., built tens of thousands of houses for his workers as well as recreation facilities—everything from sport arenas to industrial colleges.
Batawa is much smaller, but young Tom has done the same on a proportionate scale. He rents 185 Bata-built bungalows at from $4.75 to $7.¿0 per week. In the big staff house 100 workers board for $4 a week, and 200 DP workers bunk in duplexes at $1 a week.
They have free run of the shopping centre, including a Bata shoe store that sells shoes at low prices; extensive recreation facilities; and can see free movies and stage shows.
Sécrétaiies Wear Out Quick
At 9.30 each morning the machines stop for 10 minutes. Sandwiches, cakes, coffee and soft drinks are wheeled around on wagons while publicity director Duncan reads the Toronto Globe and Mail over the plant publicaddress system. On their way to the second-floor cafeteria, where chubby Charlie Graham sells 40to 60-cent meals, workers pick up the daily Bata Bulletin which gives them news of Batawa doings from births to baseball results, and even tells them to love each other on St. Valentine’s Day.
Bata tolerates no time wasting. Once he spotted two salesmen gossiping in the corridor. Said he: “On the basis of the salaries I am paying you, that is a 25-cent fish story you are telling,” and walked away.
Pipe-smoking Tom Bata has an ironclad “no smoking” rule at Batawa. He thinks smoking on the job wastes time. He doesn’t smoke on the job himself —even in his own office. Recently he had an office visitor he wanted to impress. The visitor pulled out a cigarette, said he presumed Bata didn’t
mind him smoking. Bata stammered that he didn’t smoke in the office himself but that it was all right for his visitor to do so. He pushed the wastepaper basket toward him as he didn’t have an ash tray.
When the stranger left Bata’s office half a dozen senior executives pounced on him. Horrified, they asked him to please put out his cigarette. “Mr. Bata doesn’t allow anyone to smoke here,” they cautioned.
Bata’s office is a large, bright room with cream and natural wood walls. The floor is covered with a worn brown rug. On the walls are a painting of his firm-jawed father, a picture of the King, various production graphs and charts, miscellaneous membership certificates in various organizations like the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association, and an electric stoppage indicator which tells Bata exactly when, and for how long, any assembly line stops producing.
He works behind a low, squat, grey steel desk on which telephones, intercom system and papers are arranged with typical Bata exactness.
He starts his day at 7.30 a.m. by dictating the memos he’s thought of during the night. He uses a Dictaphone, is a fast, rapid-fire dictator, seldom pauses until finished. Then his private secretary, tall, thin, bespectacled Bob Grieve, brings in the mail.
Bata has gone through 10 secretaries in as many years. One, a woman, had a nervous breakdown. Two others, men, couldn’t stand the pace and quit.
While he spends part of each day on the business of his foreign plants and stores, during the five months of each year that he spends in Canada he concentrates on the development of his Canadian company. It has expanded in 10 years to include 52 retail stores from coast to coast. These bear the name “Falcon” or “Trent.” The Canadian company also includes smaller factories at Belleville, Picton, Port Hope and Colborne (all in Ontario) and offices in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
At 9 a.m. Bata holds the first of a long series of conferences which, except for periodic inspection tours, last all day. The conferences deal with everything from sales to styles to labor troubles.
At noon Bata usually brings a business acquaintance or one of his executives home to his five-room, brick bungalow in Frankford, where his 21year-old Swiss wife cooks the meals.
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The same often happens at night, with
Bata frequently returning to the office
to stay until after midnight.
Although the official company language is English the Canadian factory has the ring of a Tower of Babel. For instance the designing department— where shoes are dreamed up—is run by a 38-year-old Czech, Jaroslav Janecka. His designers are French, Swiss, English, Danish, Indian and Canadian.
In the other departments where the shoes are made (each shoe goes through from 135 to 200 operations), Canadians are in the majority, but there are also 200 DP’s, 100-odd British immigrants, and a sprinkling of Ba tamen from other countries.
Canadian workers at Batawa grouse bitterly because most of the department heads and foremen are Czechs. However, there are several Canadians holding down key executive posts at Batawa, and others have been sent out, as is the Bata custom, to carry the Bata banner in foreign lands.
Million Pairs a Day
Few of Bata’s 1,400 Canadian workers (}/i women) can hope to rise to executive positions. Those who do will most probably come up from the whitecollared ranks of the office jobs.
Most of the men around Bata are around Bata’s own age (34). Advertising manager Jim Taylor is 34, as is Bata’s Jack-of-all-jobs, Stan Brown (both Canadians), and rubber division manager J. Matthews (Englishman). Chief inspector of engineering Bob Leavitt (Canadian) is only 31. Anthony Cekota at 49 is the oldest of the top Batawa executives.
Last year Canadian shoe manufacturers had their worst season in eight years (mild winter weather and scant rain were partly to blame) and Bata admits he was no exception. Production of leather shoes in Canada was roughly 31 million pairs, a slump of 12,250,000 from the peak year of 1946.
Bata, who pulls a slide rule out of his pocket every time figures are mentioned, reckons his production at 5 of the Canadian total, or well over 2 j million pairs, not counting rubber footwear.
According to Bata, his world organization spews out a million pairs a day —which, if we take Bata’s figures again, works out to a third of the world’s production, between 900 million and a billion pairs a year.
Bata has 176 basic styles, each having three to 10 variations, in the works for spring. He predicts an upswing in “bold-look” shoes and wine and Burgundy colors. (Seventy-five per cent of all shoes made in Canada are now some shade of brown.) This shows the Americanization of Bata’s ideas, though some critics say his shoes are still too European for Canadian taste.
Bata is gradually centralizing his control and directive power of his world enterprises in Batawa, and this is significant. Behind this move lurks the shadow of international politics.
The story of the political pressures that made Bata move the capital of his empire to Canada, and the; story of his struggle to retain control of the Bata organization, will be told in the next issue of Maclean’s.
For Bata, fighting the Communists in a dozen countries, is also fighting an international legal battle with his stepuncle Jan Bata, who, although a friend of Nazi Hermann Goering and a corvicted war criminal, is still a potent power on the international scene. ★
vThis is the second of three articles on the Bata enterprise)