The Fabulous Shoemaker
The Communists tried to forge the Bata chain into a spy ring but Tom Bata held them off. Now he’s fighting his stepuncle for control
SOON AFTER the Russian Army liberated Czechoslovakia in May, 1945, Czech-Canadian shoemaker Thomas John Bata arrived in Prague to try to strike a deal with the provisional government which had nationalized the huge, halfa-billion-dollar Bata shoe plant at Zlin.
His stormy meetings with Communist VicePremier—now Premier—Antonin Zapotocky and other officials of the government ended in a stalemate when he flatly turned down the proposal of Russia’s Josef Kyjanka that he sell his 46-country shoe empire to the Communists as a ready-made international spy ring. (Bata says Kyjanka is the real ruler of the Czech Bata plant.)
That night—four days before his scheduled departure—lifelong friend Jan Masaryk telephoned Bata and advised him to leave the country. A British Embassy car whisked him to the airport and within the hour he had left aboard a London-bound plane.
That was the beginning of Bata’s still unsettled dispute with the Czech Communists. But it was not the first, nor the last, time that his claim to the globe-girdling shoe business founded in Zlin by his father 55 years ago has been challenged. Ever since Thomas Bata, Sr., (who started the Bata Company on a $200 shoestring) died in a plane crash in 1932, Bata Jr. has had to fight for his inheritance. He is still fighting for it from his world shoe capital of Batawa, which he built around his factory in Ontario’s rolling Trent Valley.
This is Bata’s version of his 10-year struggle for control of his father’s enormous shoe business:
His troubles, like those of so many others, began with the rise of Adolph Hitler. His father saw trouble coming and in the early 30’s began to decentralize his organization. He opened independent Bata factories and stores in dozens of countries outside the German orbit. In traditionally neutral Switzerland he set up the Bata Foundation to control the finances and majority stock of his rapidly expanding empire.
In the U. S., in 1932, Bata Sr. warned that the approaching war would mean a serious rubber shortage and urged the Americans to begin the production of synthetic rubber. Officials laughed but 10 years later they had to admit that he had been right.
When Bata Sr.’s private plane plowed into a farmer’s field near Zlin, in 1932, his half-brother Dr. Jan A. Bata, (Bata Sr.’s father had had three wives, three Bets of children) became Bata president.
Bata Sr. left a will and supplementary instructions. He told the family that his only child, Thomas Jr., whom he had groomed to succeed him would be his heir. He also told them that if he should die before his son was of age Jan should take over as interim regent (Tom was 17 when his father was killed).
Jan Bata has been described by members of the Bata family and by the men who worked most closely with him as a “proud, vain, egotistical man with political ambitions and delusions c grandeur.” He is a sallow blond man of 50 wit fleshy face and when Continued on pa
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Hitler’s storm troopers goose-stepped into the Sudetenland after the Munich Pact of September, 1938, Jan made a serious bid for the Czech presidency (his platform: the mass migration of the entire Czech nation to Patagonia). Tom Bata and his mother succeeded in dissuading Jan from this active venture into politics. But a few weeks later the Bata president received a formal invitation from Nazi Hermann Goering to confer with him in Berlin.
Jan was met in Berlin by a motorcycle escort and a military guard. He was impressed by the Nazi’s pomp and ceremony and the might of the German war machine. But after a secret meeting, Goering was far from impressed with Jan Bata. In his notes of his conferences with Bata, which were introduced as evidence at the Nuremburg War Crimes Tribunal, Goering stated that he had been considering Jan Bata as a possible puppet ruler of Czechoslovakia but that he had found him “too arrogant, too pompous and too egotistical to be of much use to us.”
Soon after the Goering-Bata meetings, Jan and Tom Bata were traveling through Germany to Switzerland when the Gestapo boarded the train and arrested Jan. Tom Bata, who had been educated in England and Switzerland, was ignored. The Gestapo quizzed Jan for a week, then let him return to Zlin. But this experience decided Jan to leave Czechoslovakia when the tip-off came that the Nazis were on the march.
On March 9, 1939, an old friend braved a snowstorm to fly from Prague to Zlin to warn Tom Bata that the Germans would march into Czechoslovakia the next day.
A Contract From Ottawa
They decided to escape together in Bata’s limousine as the snowstorm had grounded all planes. To outwit the Nazis they fled across the Austrian border into Germany. Jan also took the tip and escaped to the U. S. by way of Poland.
Near the Austrian-Swiss border, Tom’s limousine bogged down in a snowdrift. All trains to Switzerland had been canceled, so Bata and his friend stumbled their way on foot across the Salzburg Alps through the blizzard and succeeded in reaching Switzerland.
Dominik Cipera, Bata’s general manager, stayed in Zlin. Bata’s mother also refused to leave.
Tom Bata arrived in Canada on April 1, 1939, to build his modern, fivestory shoe factory and his new town Batawa (Bata towns all over the world carry the Bata prefix). He financed this operation with solid gold bars which he had smuggled out of Plurope, some via Africa, others through England. The gold was on deposit in his name in the Montreal branch of Barclay’s Bank.
After Munich, Bata had begun spiriting key machines out of Zlin, and after the Nazi occupation they kept flowing to Canada—in crates brazenly marked “Shoes for Export.” The Gestapo didn’t get wise until it was too late.
On Aug. 31, 1939, the 20,000-ton German merchantman Koenigsberg was docked at Sorel, Que., waiting to unload 800 cases of vital Bata machines when her captain received an urgent code message from Berlin. That night, without unloading cargo, the Koenigsberg weighed anchor. With its lights masked it slipped past Quebec City and headed down the St. Lawrence for the open sea.
At Father’s Point a lone RCMP
speedboat manned by two constables stopped the German ship and brought it back to Sorel. The Koenigsberg quickly unloaded and again put to sea. A few days later war was declared and the ship was sunk between Newfoundland and Greenland.
Besides machines (10,200 cases in all), Bata smuggled 80 Czech experts and their families out of Zlin. He also brought to Canada skilled technicians from the great Skoda arms plant at Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, and later from the big Schneider-Creusot arms plant in France.
When war broke out, Britain, realizing the scope of the Bata organization and its potentialities in time of war, fostered the Bata plants within the British orbit and discouraged outside plants that were in a position to mobilize foreign exchange or in other ways assist Hitler.
Tom Bata quickly switched his new factory from 100% shoe to 90% war production, and went fishing for Ottawa contracts. Other Canadian manufacturers advised against letting Bata handle war work. There was, they said, a question mark beside the Bata name. But when none of them showed enthusiasm for a small $87 order for two tricky precision gauges, Ottawa gave it to Bata. Bata lost $307 on that first war job but won the Government’s confidence.
Over the U. S. border, stepuncle Jan was doing just the opposite at the sprawling Bata plant at Belcamp, Md. He was proceeding to make enemies on every side. In May, 1940, the U. S. Government fined Bata $8,000 on five counts of wage-hour violations and falsifying records, and ordered him to reimburse 600 employees by more than $10,000. In September, 1940, Attorney-General R. H. Jackson revealed that the Justice Department had ordered 59 Czech Batamen to leave the country because, while brought in on the understanding that they were necessary to teach American workers the job, they were simply being used as employees.
But labor troubles were the least of Jan’s worries. He succeeded in insulting the Czech Government in exile, the British Government and finally the U. S. Government. But what put the Bata company in a really bad light was Jan’s persistence in dealing with Germany and German companies in neutral countries.
On Jan. 17, 1941, Rep. Frank Hook (Mich.) called for an official investigation of Jan Bata and his activities in the U. S.
The same day the Canadian Minister of Mines and Resources, T. A. Crerar, said that he was sure Tom Bata was “all right.” Stating that he vouched for him, Crerar said: “I know Thomas Bata is not sympathetic to the Nazi cause.”
Black-listed by Roosevelt
Jan Bata ignored the rumblings of protest. In Ottawa an approach was made to Tom Bata and he went with officials of the Department of External Affairs to the U. S. to see Jan.
Jan received the delegation coolly in a silk dressing gown. His arrogant and imperious manner angered both the Canadian officials and his nephew. He flatly refused to say that he was not a Nazi or that he did not sympathize with the Nazi cause on the grounds that it was no one’s business but his own. A few days later he made an announcement in the U. S. papers in which he said: “I am not a Hitler agent.”
Jan’s evasion of the Nazi question brought the rift between the Batas into the open. But the Batas are a closeknii, family in which blood is considered
even thicker than politics. Tom Bata refused to say anything publicly about his stepuncle’s actions except that the Canadian Bata company was no longer connected with the U. S. firm.
On Feb. 12, 1941, Rep. Edith Rogers (Mass.) asked the U. S. House of Representatives’ committee investigating un-American activities to investigate the Bata Shoe Company at Beicamp. “I hope,” she said, “the committee will investigate the Nazi activities in that shoe shop.”
Her charges touched off a storm of editorial and public protest against Jan Bata. Finally, on July 18, 1941, President Roosevelt black - listed the international Bata company and ordered the Bata plants in the U. S. placed under supervision and government control. (The black-listing was lifted in 1946.)
When Federal agents went to see Jan Bata they found that he had gone to Brazil.
The time had obviously come for Tom Bata to takeover his inheritance. He informed Jan that he was no longer regent and president and, backed by the Canadian and British Governments (the U. S. was leery of him because he was a Bata), began to reorganize and consolidate his battered empire. He set up the Bata Development in London, England, to supervise the difficult reformation while he prepared his Canadian headquarters at. Batawa to be the future co-ordinating core. To all the outposts of the Bata organization went orders to support the Allied cause, and around the world Bata factories began turning out war equipment.
Bata’s plant in Leopoldville in the Belgian Congo made shoes, shorts and military belts for the troops of General de Gaulle. The East African Bata Shoe Company, in jungle-rimmed Limuru, turned out military boots, sandals, mosquito boots and leather jerkins for the Allied forces in the Mediterranean area. The Bata Shoe Company in Batanagar, on the banks of India’s Ganges, produced 32 million pairs of footwear, 23 million parts of webbing equipment, half a million sets of parachute-dropping kit, and half a million rubber ground sheets for the armies in the Pacific theatre. At Batawa, Bata made parts for aerial torpedoes, Bren gun sights and gun and aircraft components.
Bata’s Intelligence Men
Tom Bata joined the 2nd Battalion of the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, Canadian Reserve Army (he also joined the swank Legion of Frontiersmen), was given a captain’s commission, and recruited a Batawa company from among his workers.
The U. S. Government, Bata says, called him to Washington at one point for information that would facilitate j the bombing of those parts of the Nazi-held Bata plants the Germans had probably converted to manufacture war machinery.
The Bata capital of Zlin was raided heavily. 'The result: 60',' of the
production of footwear was destroyed by bombs while the production of war materials for the Nazis was not touched. Bata claims the wrong buildings were bombed. The Communist Government j of Czechoslovakia charges Bata with deliberately giving false information.
In 1944 Rata fell out with President Benes over Renes’ trip to Moscow and the signing of the Russo-Czech pact.
I “Benes,” says Bata today, “acted against the wishes of his friends and advisers. The British and American Governments tried to dissuade him I from the treaty. So did Jan Masaryk and his other ministers. But Benes
believed that he was doing right.” Before the 1944 pact Benes, like Masaryk, had been a close friend of Bata’s.
That year, with the end of the war in sight., Bata summoned his chiefs from the various centres of his empire to meet in Batawa to plan the postwar reorganization of the Rata company. Among those present were Sir Frederick Whyte, vice-chairman of the British Bata Company (Bata is chairman), and British general manager John Tusa; their counterparts from Beleamp, Md., V. Chlud and John Hoza; and John Barto>, general manager of the biggest Bata plant at Batanagar, India.
Bata was able to plan ahead because of the information supplied to him by the thousands of Batamen who joined the services. Bata used them as unofficial reporters and contact men and from all parts of the world their letters brought him news of the condition and activities of his plants that the war had cut off from direct contact. Some Batamen, like Bata’s Canadian driver Stan Brown, a corporal dispatch rider with the Canadian Army in Europe, went into battle with a personal letter of introduction from Bata. Brown was first into Bata factories in France and Holland, and established contact between Bata and the local managers (the last time they had been in direct contact with headquarters Jan Bata had been president). In England and other Bata centres Batamen in the services were entertained on leaves by the local Bata outfit, free of charge.
To Argue in Prague
Zlin, the former Rata capital, did not fare too well under German occupation. General manager Dominik Cipera was deposed as mayor (he had succeeded Bata Sr.) and he had little authority in the plant which was run by Nazi Economic Minister Bertsch. According to Bata, both Cipera and Mrs. Bata Sr. helped the underground. Toward the end of the war Cipera was arrested by the Gestapo and put into a concentration camp.
In May, 1945, when the Russians liberated Czechoslovakia, he was restored as Mayor of Zlin by the Red Army. But a few days later Benes issued a decree from London placing all municipal governments in the hands of his People’s Party. Cipera was immediately rearrested and jailed to await trial as a war criminal. Dr. Ivan Holy, a salesman in a Bata bookstore at Zlin, emerged as the Communist chief of Zlin and took over the management of t he huge plant.
Bata, in England at the time, wangled a trip to Prague as “escort officer” to the British Embassy staff (civilian travel was forbidden). Later he arranged a conference with Communist leaders for September.
“1 met the various ministers and tried to reach an agreement on compensation for the nationalization of the Zlin plant (announced by Gottwald, June 6, 1945),” Bata says today, “hut they obviously resented dealing with a notorious western capitalist. Dr. Holy, who was by then director of all shoe and textile industries, wanted to work out a co-operative deal between Zlin and the rest of the Bata organization. 1 told them that it was possible. Their suggestion was that 1 give all my shares in the international organization to the Czech state. I would remain head of everything, but in name only. The Communists were to control everything from Prague and Zlin and send out buyers and salesmen to the various countries we operate in. In return I was to receive great financial compensation.
“The British and American Governments, of course, were to be left in the dark about the deal. It looked to me as if the Communists—and the real boss at the meeting was not Gottwald or Holy but Moscow’s .Josef Kyjanka, —wanted to buy a ready-made spy ring. I said no dice.
“I told them I wanted compensation for the nationalization of Zlin and that I thought we could strike a deal whereby we handled the buying and selling for the Zlin plant outside of Czechoslovakia in the western part of the world. Kyjanka said he would agree to that if Zlin had control of sending out buyers and salesmen to the various countries. I said no and told them that I would be leaving Prague to return to England in four days time and in case they changed their minds to let me know.
“I reported what went on at the secret conferences to the British and U. S. ambassadors. They strongly urged me to make some kind of a deal. At that time they were trying to keep the Reds friendly. But I figured an agreement on Communist terms would be the beginning of the end of the Bata company.
“I learned later that several Communists from the Zlin plant visited the States as bona fide Ba tamen and were accepted by the businessmen and political men they contacted as such. One prominent New York politician even threw a party for them after showing them around t he local factories. ‘And how is young Tommy Bata?’ he kept asking them. ‘Fine,’ they told him, ‘just fine.’ As soon as 1 learned of the fake Batamen’s visits I quickly put a stop to it and warned their too generous hosts that they had been showing everything they liad to the Communist boys.”
Some High-Level Blackmail
After Bata fled Czechoslovakia on a tip from Jan Masaryk, he tried to get his mother out. Mrs. Bata had left Zlin in 1939, moving between her palatial homes in Switzerland, France and England, and then crossing to the U. S. and Canada. Late in 1940 she went back to Nazi-held Czechoslovakia. When the Red Army moved in she found she could not get permission to leave. With the help of influential political friends she tried to obtain a passport, hut the Communist bosses turned her down.
Then, one day in June, 1946, she walked into a Prague passport office and filled in the regulation application forms. The official in charge recognized her name and having heard that high representations had been made on her behalf mistakenly assumed approval had been granted and issued her a passport.
At the British Embassy Mrs. Bata obtained a visa while the Embassy telephoned London where the Foreign Office contacted Bata. Within an hour Bata had arranged for a private plane to take off for Prague at once. The crew were given special instructions.
As soon as they landed at Prague they phoned Mrs. Bata and told her to leave for the airport. They were to take off again as soon as she arrived. Mrs. Bata protested that she had yet to pack, but she was told to forget the packing and leave. She did. The plane was well on its way before frustrated officials dashed onto the airfield to cancel out the mistake made by the minor official.
The Communists, who had hoped to be able to use her as a lever to force Bata to reach an agreement, followed her to London. There their agent contacted Bata and his mother and broached a little genteel blackmail. The
Communists knew that Tom Bata’s stepuncle Jan Bata was preparing to start a complicated international legal battle to wrest control of the Bata empire from his nephew. They offered to turn over to Bata papers which they hinted would help him in his fight with Jan. The documents allegedly proved that Tom Bata was the rightful heir, and would, the Reds said, enable Bata to win his case with Jan. In return the Communists wanted $25 millions in U. S. currency, which amount, they claimed, was the value of the machines and cash Bata had smuggled out from Zlin before the outbreak of war. Bata agreed to the proposition on one conditionthat the Czech Government pay him $200 millions compensation for the nationalization of his Zlin plant.
On Sept. 7, 1946, the U. S. publication Business Week carried a story with a Prague dateline titled “Bata Resumes Czech Ties.” It reported that a reciprocal trade agreement had been signed by Thomas Bata and the Zlin Communists. It even gave the terms of the alleged agreement. But Bata flatly denied that any deal had been made, much less signed. And until he received compensation, he added, there would be no deal.
Actually there was little possibility of a truce. The Communists had fired the opening round when they seized and nationalized the Bata factories at Zlin. A few days after his escape from Czechoslovakia in September, 1945, Bata retaliated. In Toronto, Bata’s lawyer, Wilfrid W. Parry, K.C. (of Arnoldi, Parry and Campbell), filed a writ against Bata Ackciova Spolecnost of Zlin for $1,123,828, which Bata claimed had been owing to him since 1937.
i t was only the first of scores of legal actions begun by Bata in dozens of countries.
Zlin, holding a block of shares in Bata’s Italian factories, tried to infiltrate Czech Communists into the organization and gain control. Bata flew to Italy, forced his companies into liquidation and started new ones. The Communists retaliated with a lawsuit which is still before the Italian courts.
At first Bata fought a delaying action, then be cracked down on the Communists who were trying to grab off his world markets with cheaper Zlin-made shoes bearing the Bata trademark. In England, Egypt, Rhodesia, Chile, Nigeria and Singapore Bata took out injunctions against the Zlin plant using the Bata name. Just before last Christmas, on Bata’s initiative, one million pairs of Zlin made Bata shoes were impounded in Belgium. In France, Switzerland, Holland, Spain and Portugal he stopped the unloading of all Bata-trademarked Zlin shoes.
“The Czechs Are Slaves’’
On Jan. 1, 1949, dour-faced Gottwald announced that Bata would receive no compensation for the nationalization of his factories and stores behind the Iron Curtain. Bata replied the next day by getting another five million Zlin shoes tied up on the world market.
On Jan. 3, the Communists gave in. Propaganda Minister Vaclev Kopecky announced that the city of Zlin had been renamed Cottwaldov and that the nationalized name of the Bata shoe factories had been changed to Svet (trademark of Bata-made nylon stockings). Kopecky said that to Communists the name Bata had lost its value because the Soviet Union no longer insisted on the Bata name in shoes delivered to Russia.
Eut Bata’s battle with the Communist rulers of Czechoslovakia is
by no means over. It is at a momentary stalemate. In Zlin, where the Communists claim everyone is happy, there are still loyal Batamen who smuggle out information and Communist propaganda books on Zlin to Bata in Canada.
In January Bata received the latest Communist book (called “Czechoslovenske”). In it the Communists attacked the Bata family as economic dictators and fascists and said it was “the rapacity of the Bata family” that had transformed Zlin from an obscure Moravian village to a sprawling industrial city.
Naturally, Bata has many charges of his own. He claims that the Czechs are slaves to their Communist masters, and that just as underground movements sprang up during the Nazi occupation so are they springing up today.
On the basis of reports from inside Czechoslovakia, it is said that seven known anti-Communist groups have begun underground activity against the government. The largest is the Freedom Movement with 4,500 members organized into small groups sworn to carry out sabotage. Supporting it is the revived wartime partisan group known as the Black Lion. Others include the Czech Labor Movement, and three fighting groups in strongly separationist Slovakia, the White Partisans, the Slovak Revolutionary Society and the Free Slovak Club. Finally, there is the movement directed from London by Gen. Lev. Frohala, war minister in the exile government of the late President Eduard Benes before Benes went home to disappointment and death. (Of Jan Masaryk’s death last year, Bata says: “The Communists drove him to suicide.”)
Today, the man who directs Bata’s international fight against the Communists is former Zlin general manager Dominik Cipera, who works out of Batawa, Ont. Brought to trial on a collaboration charge in September, 1945, before the Prague People’s Court, he was found innocent when underground leaders testified on his behalf. Too ill to leave Czechoslovakia after his acquittal, and under constant supervision, Cipera remained there until November of last year.
Last summer the Czech Government ordered new trials for all who received sentences of 10 years and under, or who were previously acquitted on war crimes or collaborating charges. When Bata received a wire reading, “Have decided to spend the rest of my days in peace in Czechoslovakia—Cipera,” he knew that Cipera was on the way out and prepared to receive him.
A few weeks after he received the telegram, Bata, who had gone to Switzerland to direct a rescue attempt if Cipera failed to make it, received a telephone call from the British sector of Berlin. It was Cipera. Bata sent a
plane for him and brought him back with him to Canada. In December a People’s Court in Prague concluded that flight was an admission of guilt and sentenced him, in absentia, to 10 years in prison as a wartime collaborator.
Today, at 54, Cipera is working as hard as ever. When he was 42, Bata Sr. told him he could retire any time he liked on a yearly pension of $60,000. Bata Jr. has told Cipera that that offer still holds good.
Tom Has a Strong Hand
Jan Bata was also tried in absentia, in May, 1947, by the Prague People’s Court. Found guilty of not supporting the Czech Government-in-exile, he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.
Safe in Brazil, Jan Bata is today trying to regain control of the Bata organization. He has started several of his own Bata shoe factories in South America in competition with the Tom Bata-controlled ones already there.
Jan Bata’s claim is that he is the rightful heir and successor of his half brother Thomas Bata, Sr. He contends that Bata Sr. meant him to be his actual successor and not merely regent for Bata’s son.
Tom Bata’s lawyer, Wilfrid Parry, has twice gone to see Jan in Rio de Janeiro to try to iron out the dispute, but Jan won’t back down.
The legal battle has been going on in more than 30 countries (the main battle is being fought in Switzerland) for the last year and a half. According to Tom Bata, it will probably continue for another five years. In March, Tom Bata’s U. S. lawyers, Sullivan and Cromwell (John Foster Dulles is a member), began fighting a New York Bata vs. Bata case in which Jan Bata is contesting his stepnephew’s rights to ownership of the U. S. factories.
Commercially, Jan Bata is still a power and challenges Tom Bata. Unlike the Communists, he can trade under the Bata name, something which young Bata worries about more than the ownership fight.
Tom Bata’s position seems to be the strongest. On his side are his mother (54-year-old Marie Bata, who lives in Toronto’s Forest Hill Village), John Bartos, the Indian manager, his cousin Fred Mencik (a shoe salesman in New Zealand), his father’s former rightand left-hand man, Dominik Cipera, and Czech author Anthony Cekota (for Bata Sr. publicity chief and policy adviser; for Bata Jr. assistant general manager, foreign affairs expert).
At 34 Tom Bata is confident that one day his one-year-old son and heir, Thomas III, will inherit his millions and succeed him as shoe king of the world.
CThis is the last of three articles on Tom Bata.)