Thomas J. Bata (*17. 9. 1914, +1. 9. 2008)
The Thomas Bata Foundation was established by Thomas J Bata, son and only child of the Founder of the Bata shoe company. He died in Toronto, Canada,
on August 31, 2008, just 17 days short of his 94th birthday.
Thomas J Bata was born in Prague on September 17, 1914. At four years of age his parents, Tomas and Marie Bata, gave him a miniature shoemaker's bench for Christmas, along with a complete set of cobbler's tools. Following his education in England, Switzerland and at the Academy of Commerce in Uherske Hradiste, he was initiated into the family footwear business as an assembly line worker, sidelasting 500 pairs of shoes a day at the main factory in Zlin.
In July 1932 Tomas Bata was killed in an airplane crash en route to Möhlin, Switzerland, where 18-year old Thomas was helping to set up a new factory. Control of the company devolved upon Thomas' step-uncle, Jan Antonin Bata, until after the Second World War. Thomas himself worked for the company in Czechoslovakia and the United Kingdom until 1938, when the rise of Nazism prompted the family to set up a new outpost in Canada. 100 Czech workers and their families followed Thomas to a site some 150km east of Toronto, where with their help he established Batawa, a village centered on shoemaking and engineering plants. For the duration of the war, these factories focused on production for the Canadian and Allied armies, and Thomas served in the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment of which he remained an active member until his death.
Attempts to reclaim the Czech business following the war proved futile: the departure of the German occupying forces left the field open to the Russian Communists, who promptly nationalized the Bata interests and did their utmost to bury the Bata history. The business was renamed Svit and even the town of Zlin, famous throught the country as the centre of Bata's manufacturing operations, was changed to Gottwaldov to honour a Communist hero.
For the next 60 years, Thomas, with his wife Sonja, worked tirelessly from bases in Canada and the United Kingdom to build the Bata company into the multinational organization it is today, never losing sight of his father's goals. Paraphrasing Tomas' Bata's 'Moral Testament', the objective of the company was to provide a means of economic advancement to both its employees and its customers through the production and sales of affordable footwear.
Under Thomas Bata's leadership, the Bata Shoe Organisation by 1982 was operating in 92 countries, employing some 85,000 people and selling some 300 million pairs of inexpensive shoes each year through a retail network that included thousands of shops and dealerships in sophisticated urban centres as well as some of the world's remotest places.
Thomas' entrepreneurial instincts were legendary, as was his sense of humour and his humility: his business card, translated into many languages, read simply 'Senior Shoe Salesman.' A defining anecdote regarding his approach to business - and life in general - involved two shoe salesmen sent to investigate the potential for footwear sales in different parts of Africa: the first salesman returned to describe the situation as hopeless because "no-one here wears shoes" - and lost his job as a result; the second - who rose to executive status within the company - sent an urgent message to headquarters describing a market with "huge potential as no-one is wearing shoes."
The benefits of entrepreneurialism, regional co-operation and responsible capitalism were themes that Thomas promoted and supported throughout his lifetime. He was a founding member of the Young Presidents' Organization, Chairman of the Commission on Multinational Enterprises of the International Chamber of Commerce and Chairman of the Business and Industry Advisory Committee to the OECD. His service to his adopted country, Canada, won him their him their highest decoration as Companion to the Order of Canada. Upon the fall of the Iron Curtain, he brought Junior Achievement to Eastern Europe, introducing thousands of young people raised under Communism to the opportunities available within a free market economy. In 2007 he proudly received the First Lifetime Award for Responsible Capitalism in the United Kingdom.
In spite of all their efforts, the Communists never succeeded in suppressing the Bata legacy in Czechoslovakia. On the contrary, Thomas, and the Bata company, came to symbolize the halcyon days prior to occupation. With the collapse of Communism, the newly elected Czech president Vaclav Havel invited Thomas to return his homeland. On October 29th, 1989, Thomas' arrival in Prague was greeted by crowds of cheering Czechs. In 1991 Thomas was awarded the Order of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, and Gottwaldov was officially renamed Zlin. A small number of restitutions were made in that same year: Bata Czech Republic was re-established with a small factory at Domy Nemci and some 90 retail stores (of the original 900 confiscated before the war). Also returned was Thomas' childhood home, the Bata Villa in Zlin, where he established the Thomas Bata Foundation in 1998. And finally, the family-owned forests straddling the Czech/Slovak border, which had once supplied the wooden lasts for the factories.
Thousands of tributes from employees, colleagues and heads of state arrived upon Thomas' death, but none would have touched him as much as the words of Bata factory worker from Uganda: ”Caring for people's feet is not easy job but you have done it perfectly well. May you be rewarded by the good god.”