From South Africa to Zlín: Brian Jakubec on rediscovering the Bata legacy that shaped his life
From South Africa to Zlín: Brian Jakubec on rediscovering the Bata legacy that shaped his life
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Brian Jakubec was born in South Africa and is a successful IT manager at Lenovo. But his life was shaped by events that took place in far-away Czechoslovakia when his father, still in his teens, joined the Bata shoe empire, where he would one day become a senior official. Fate would have it that, almost a century later, Brian’s work took him to Slovakia and opened a quest of discovery about his Czech roots and the Bata school of work ethics that he himself adopted. Brian joined me in the studio to talk about his journey into the family past.
“My dad was born here in Czechoslovakia back in 1916 and as a teenager he was solicited to the Bata school of work in Zlín. So at the tender age of 15 he moved to Zlín in an attempt to support his mother and two sisters. He arrived in Zlín in roughly 1931, from what I can gather and had really long days. They used to start at 5.30 in the morning with exercise, then breakfast, get ready for work, they would work all day, they would have an hour’s break at lunchtime, continue to work in the afternoon and in the evenings there’d be dinner and from there straight to studies until round about 9.30 when it was lights-out. The next day they’d start all over again and this was his daily activity every day of the week.”
"That Bata discipline really followed my dad through his career, through his married life and was even passed on to us, his children."
So it was a tough school of work ethics?
“Absolutely. In some ways almost military style precision, but it was really great in terms of the discipline it instilled in all of the employees at the time. That discipline really followed my dad through his career, through his married life and was even passed on to us, his children. I have two elder brothers and we all got the same disciplined upbringing where the rule was “work first and family second”. And even if I take a look at my own life it has been work first, family second.”
It was generally said that in addition to this military discipline, Bata also took very good care of his employees, isn’t that so?
“Extremely good care. In fact we were surprised to uncover, in the Zlín archives, that Bata employees typically earned three times more than what the going wage was in any other industry. Bata himself was very, very selective of the type of employees he wanted, he clearly expected them to be totally loyal to the organization and in some ways he was very loyal to them as well.”
He built accommodation for them and in some places many other facilities as well, didn’t he?
“That’s very much the case. Zlín is obviously a very good example of that. What surprised us is that where he was not happy with the service he was getting, he then developed it for himself. So as an example – the Bata “school of work” started off as an outside organization teaching employees the work ethic that Bata wanted to implement. He was dissatisfied with the progress that it was making so he developed his own school. Similarly, he was dissatisfied with the construction companies building the Bata housing estate – so what did he do? –he started his own construction companies. And that was the way he progressed in absolutely everything he did. Whether it was opening up a supermarket for his employees –Bata owned, a cinema – Bata-owned, a residential area –Bata owned. So it was quite incredible that having originally started off as a shoemaker he built a forward-thinking conglomerate of different organizations to support his overall effort. That is totally amazing.”
He was a pioneer in his day and age and is still highly respected as an exemplary Czech entrepreneur. Is his philosophy of work ethics still pertinent in this day?
“I think there is a lot of pertinence to be honest. I think that unfortunately, a lot of companies may have missed the trick with some of the business principles that he had, but in my mind and in my own work career, everything that he implemented a hundred years ago is still very pertinent in a lot of ways.
“I think that in some ways, having come from multinational global organizations, shareholder value has possibly spoilt a lot of business compared to the privately owned family business of the Bata empire, where whatever they decided was going to be the task, the goal or the values, was really carried through. That was certainly the case in the era of the founder Tomas Bata and his son Bata Jr. I can’t comment too much on the current Tomas Bata, because I have not followed the organization too closely from that point onwards, but certainly dad-and-son had absolutely amazing work ethics, really incredible, considering it is over 100 years old now.”
And your father passed it on to you and your elder brothers…
“That’s right. I chose not to work for Bata, but my elder brothers worked for Bata. My “middle” brother worked for Bata his entire career and retired about six years ago. I was a bit of a rebel and chose not to work for Bata, but all those principles were instilled in my own work ethics and I have run with them in many ways.”
Bata made a big impact on your family. Do you feel an affiliation, a sense of pride that your family was part of the Bata empire?
“Hugely so. I have always had a desire to understand more about it. When I was transferred to Slovakia two years ago – it was right after the second Covid wave – I was driving and I decided to come across from Slovakia into the Czech Republic. I drove to Brno and while I was driving I had this incredible sense that here my dad started off many, many years ago and his youngest son is now back in this environment.
“I still see it as one country –Czechoslovakia –rather than two separate states. Some months later a really good friend of mine and I were driving in Moravia, doing some sightseeing, and she realized that we were literally 40 minutes away from Zlín. So without any thought or preplanning we went to Zlin and started uncovering what was going on in the Bata world. Subsequently we had a formal meeting with the Zlín archive people and it really gave me a great sense of what it must have been like for my father to be here, as a teenager, to be walking those very streets, to be in his work environment. It left me with cold shivers –almost living and breathing his sense at that particular time. It was an absolutely incredible sensation, to be honest.”
So you came back full circle...
“To me it was full circle and I have so much more desire to uncover as much as I can about what might have happened. Fortunately, after spending the first part of his career in Zlín he was one of a selected number of people who were asked to transfer to other parts of the world.”
He was sent to Kenya in 1939 and later to Zimbabwe, right?
“Yes, he was sent to Keya at the start of the Second World War. Whether it was true or not I don’t know, but there is a lot of conjecture that Tomas Bata Jr. made a point of trying to protect key employees. Key employees who he considered to be of value to the company he tried to move out and it seems that, fortunately, my dad was one of them.”
To build new factories abroad…
“Yes, and to expand the business. They were travelling on a German ship and on arrival in Mombasa, they were all arrested because they were suspected of being German spies. They were imprisoned in Fort Jesus, which is currently a UNESCO heritage site, and after about five days or so they were released. Subsequently he was in Nairobi, the current capital, and later they built the Bata factory in Limuru. So he was there for four or five years and then was transferred to what was then Southern Rhodesia, which is today’s Zimbabwe.”
He helped Czechoslovakia financially after the war, didn’t he?
“That was the case. The Bata principle was that all employees were forced to save a certain amount of money – if I am not mistaken it was 10 percent – which went straight into what was called their “personal account”. What was interesting to me was that, again, it was a Bata Bank where this money went, at least here in Czechoslovakia. Abroad they would use local retail banks. And that money could be used to support further efforts of Bata or Czechoslovakia at the time. And given the amount of money on his account at the time he was obviously in a pretty senior position. I know my dad was always considered a senior executive, but I didn’t quite realize what that meant in the Bata world. Today, with share options it is quite easy to understand things like that, but 90 years ago this kind of concept was unique and judging from what he had in his personal account, he was in a very strong, senior position within the company.”
The Bata empire really was a world in itself, wasn’t it?
Of course, the communist take-over in Czechoslovakia also closed the door to you as a family…in fact I think your father only taught his children English, because he never expected to be able to return…
“That was the case. He himself was anxious to improve his English. Again from what we can gather being in the managerial school, they would have been taught foreign languages. Kenya and Southern Rhodesia were British colonies at the time and it was essential to speak English. He married a local Rhodesian woman whose mother tongue was English, so at home we spoke English. And sadly, we never got to speak Czech.”
But your father was able to return to Czechoslovakia in 1966, wasn’t he?
“Yes, after a lot of hard work getting approvals. Round about that time Southern Rhodesia broke away from the British Empire as a declared sovereign state and of course that created a huge furor in the international world. Sanctions were imposed on Southern Rhodesia at that time. So for my father to be able to travel to Czechoslovakia at the time was a big deal.”
"I will never forget how we were pulling into Prague station and my father saw his younger sister whom he had not seen for twenty years. The train was still moving as he leapt off it to embrace her."
He was able to see his family again.
“He saw his family for the first time in twenty years. What I will never forget is how we were on a train from Vienna to Prague and as we were pulling into Prague station he saw his younger sister whom he had not seen for twenty years. The train was still moving as he leapt off it to embrace her. It was such an emotional moment for all of us. It was absolutely incredible. And fortunately after that we were able to travel to Czechoslovakia a number of times. Every three years Bata provided free passage for the whole family to come back. In 1966 his older siblings and his two younger sisters were alive, but his mother had passed away by then. So it was a sad moment from that point of view, but it was great that he got to see his brothers and sisters.”
It was also the first time that you saw this country, wasn’t it?
“Yes, I was pre-teen when I was first here, but I have vivid memories of then-Czechoslovakia and in a lot of ways, I think more than my brothers, I have had this burning desire to be a Czechoslovak. And that was one of the fortunate things, that by arriving here –again by a lot of hard work and assistance from a close friend of mine – I managed to get Czech citizenship through my dad. What cemented my right to citizenship is that we found an old passport of my mothers who even though she was Rhodesian was granted Czech citizenship, opening the way for them to travel here back in 1946. So the fact that she had been granted Czech citizenship for that passport helped me to get citizenship as well. And although it usually takes up to two years to get Czech citizenship, we managed to do it in six months, meandering through the halls of passport officers and foreign affairs departments to make sure this could happen for me.”
How important was it for you, when you finally held that piece of paper in your hand?
“It was an amazing sensation. In some ways, it was a bit of a letdown because I have American citizenship as well and of course when you get granted American citizenship you stand and swear allegiance to the flag and so on, but because it was in the middle of the Covid pandemic the Czech office clerk was behind a Plexiglas sheet. He printed out the citizenship document and passed it to me saying – Welcome, you are now a Czech citizen! So it was a little bit of an anti-climax, but walking out of that office with that document in my hand was an absolutely amazing sensation. My friend was with me, we took her daughter and husband, who live in Prague, out for a celebratory lunch and I was now a Czech citizen. Of course, that was the first step and then you apply for a passport and all that. But we settled that within another three or four weeks.”
You have done a lot to trace your family history in this country and reconnect with your roots. How important is that for you?
“If I compare it to my brothers, they don’t have that same drive and initiative or sense of wanting to belong, like I do. For me this journey started even before the Zlín visit. I was here in Prague and we decided to visit the town where my aunt used to live and where we based ourselves when we would visit the country in the old days. That was in Libochovice, a 45-minute drive from here. So we went to Libochovice on a day trip and I found the exact house where she lived, though unfortunately they have all passed away now. The restaurant we used to go to is still there, although obviously it has changed, but what was even more exciting for me is that we found the church where my eldest brother was Baptized. We were standing there on a Sunday morning and I phoned my mother who was living in South Africa at the time to say we are here – is that the church? And she confirmed that it was. So that was the first step in bringing the roots closer together.
"We spent the most amazing day catching up, reminiscing and sharing photographs. To me it was like coming home."
“From there we managed to track down a cousin who lives in Peklo, one and a half hours’ drive from Prague. But before that it was a matter of - how do we actually uncover where they are? So this close friend of mine contacted the municipal offices and we managed to find them. Again we had Sunday lunch with them, reminiscing about old times. But the biggest catch for me was a few months later, again with a lot of hard work and opening doors, we managed to find another cousin of mine who lives just outside of Prague, whom I had not seen in close to 50 years. That was very exciting. I had seen them in 1966 and probably in 1972 and then no communication with them whatsoever until a year and a half ago when we spent the most amazing day catching up and reminiscing and sharing photographs and so on. It really gave me the opportunity of reconnecting with all of those roots. So to me it was like coming home in a lot of ways –just like coming home.”
So you feel a special affinity to this country? Subconsciously do you feel a sense of belonging?
“Absolutely. But not as Czech Republic. I see it as Czechoslovakia. That’s why I am so excited about living in Slovakia. I still see it as one nation. My very first trip to Bratislava was about 1972, so it goes back many years and here I am now living in Bratislava.”
I think that your father – who died in the early 80s I believe – would be very proud of you and deeply touched that you are following in his footsteps…
“I hope so, in fact as you mentioned that I got cold shivers down my back. You know when I was doing this deep dive exploration fortunately my mum was still alive, she died last year at the age of 93, and to her it brought a great sense of reconnection. She had married my dad at a young age and unfortunately, she was quite young when he died. When they came back to Czechoslovakia after the war to see his family for a visit he was unexpectedly drafted into the military – so for ten months my mum was stuck here with his mother and was therefore forced to learn to speak Czech, so that she could get about. So for her it was also a question of reopening and reconnecting with times past and every time I called her back with some more exciting news you could just hear the pleasure and excitement in her voice. She was meant to come and visit me in Czechoslovakia, we had it all planned and the idea was to rekindle these lost relationships. She was really excited about that, by sadly she passed away just six weeks before she was meant to come. But she passed away peacefully, knowing what had happened and the great thing for me is that two or three weeks before she died I was granted Czech citizenship and got my passport. So she died knowing that I was Czech.”
What is the most important lesson in life that your father taught you?
“Well, sadly, in the context of Bata, it was more about work than family. In a lot of ways, I have carried a little bit of that. But I think that the most important thing are the values –things like integrity, working in a team spirit, which I have tried to adopt even within my own personal life, but within my business life as well. Because coming back to Bata principles, everything was team-driven within the workplace. They would work as a team and if one team member was letting the rest of the team down that persona was punished for not being up to the production level that the rest of the team expected –that I think has filtered through. Not that we were punished at home for these things. But if you look at what Bata was all about, it is so evident and clear now in my mind, but at the time I did not realize it at all. So some of those basic values and principles is what my life lesson has been and what I have adopted in my business career success as well.”