Tomáš Bat’a (1876–1932)

The fortunes of the company founded by Tomáš Bat’a reflect the political upheavals that beset central Europe during the twentieth century. The company pioneered new techniques in manufacturing, was philanthropic in its treatment of its workers, and was responsible for some distinguished works of architecture.

Tomáš Bat’a was born in eastern Moravia, in 1876 part of the Habsburg Empire, after 1919 in Czechoslovakia and now in the Czech Republic. His family had been shoemakers over eight generations, and while in his twenties he founded a shoe-manufacturing company with his brother Antonin and his sister Anna.  In 1904 he visited the United States where he was impressed with assembly line techniques which he determined to apply in shoemaking. He had sole control of the company from 1908 when his brother died. The company prospered making military footwear during the First World War, and reached its zenith in the 1920s and 30s. On a further visit to America Bat’a saw Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in Detroit, from which he gained fresh inspiration. His factories expanded and by 1930 Czechoslovakia was the world’s principal exporter of shoes. The company became active in Poland, Yuslavia, the Netherlands, and the United States.

A plant near Kolkata (then Calcutta) in India was called Batankangar, while a factory in Ontario, Canada took the name Batawa. In 1932 a village in the Garden City style was built around a factory at East Tilbury in England.

Bat’a was skilled in marketing as well as in manufacturing and his shops became familiar features of towns over much of Europe and further afield. He set prices just short of rounded amounts (i.e. 19.99 rather than 20 euros). Several of the company’s buildings in the city of Zlin (called Gottwaldov between 1949 and 1989) are distinguished examples of the International Modernist style. Bat’a also invested in chemicals, engineering and rubber technology, and was a leading figure in a period of success and prosperity for Czech industry.

When Tomáš Bat’a died his company employed 31,000 people, a total which increased to 65,000 in the next six years under the management of his half-brother Jan Antonin Bat’a, who, in anticipation of Nazi persecution, fled to the United States and in due course settled in Brazil. Jan Antonin’s son Tomáš Jan Bat’a (1914-2008) moved to Canada in 1939 and managed the international company from Batawa, Ontario. In 1946 the company had 38 factories, 1268 company shops, employed 34,000 workers and produced annually some 34 million pairs of shoes.

With the communist takeover of Czechslovakia markets were lost in Eastern Europe. The company was able to return to Zlin in 1989 with the fall of the Iron Curtain but while its trade revived in Eastern Europe there were problems in North America. The Batawa factory closed in 2000 and the Bat’a shops in Canada in 2001, and the company headquarters re-located to Switzerland.