Thomas Archer Bata: My childhood holidays were to shoe factories

Thomas Archer Bata (in the middle), photo: Ian Willoughby

Thomas Archer Bata is in charge of global marketing for the Bata shoe company, which has more than 5,000 stores in over 70 countries all around the globe. He is the only member of the Bata family working at the famous firm, which his great-grandfather, Tomáš Baťa, founded in the Moravian town of Zlín at the end of the 19th century. Thomas Archer Bata was born in Canada and has lived in Switzerland, the UK and South America. So, I asked him, when did he first visit the Czech Republic?

Thomas Archer Bata  (in the middle),  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Our first family trip to the Czech Republic was in 1992.

“Most of my family had never been to the Czech Republic. My dad hadn’t been here since he was an infant. We basically couldn’t come because of communism.

“Our first few trips were all to Moravia. I’d been to the Czech Republic at least 15 times before I went to Prague.

“We used to fly to Vienna and drive to Zlín and to a little town called Loučka, which is near Zlín and which our family originally come from.

“We’d go to the countryside and see my granddad’s friends, who were all about his age.

“The first 10 years of experiences I had here were these kind of family trips.”

When did you first make it to Prague then?

“That was actually euro-railing, I’m very disgraced to say [laughs], when I was at high school, euro-railing through Europe.

“I came to Prague as a backpacker and did what backpackers do in Prague, as you can imagine.”

You didn’t make any use of the Baťa name at that time?

“No, not at all. On the contrary, actually.

“I think the second time I went was for my granddad’s 90th birthday, which was actually at Prague Castle.

“So that wasn’t a bad second trip to Prague.”

Was that some kind of a special ceremony for him or something?

“We tend to think of Tomáš Baťa as an old man, but these guys he was training were 18, 19, going and setting up businesses and running factories.”

“Yes, they did a ceremony to honour him for his 90th birthday – a beautiful event at Prague Castle, in the Spanish Hall.

“That was great. I got to see all the back rooms and everything of the Castle.

“I spent a few days here then and then came back to Prague the next time to work at the flagship store.

“When I joined the company my first assignment was to go to Prague and put the shop in shape.

“So I spent a year there doing just that.”

It must have been incredible, going to Wenceslas Square and going to work at a building with your name on it?

“It definitely is. It’s both gratifying and terrifying at the same time. As you can imagine, right?

“Obviously the good side is that you have amazing passion. One of the things that you realise in a business like this is that people like to work in a family business.

“Our business is a bit like a family. People feel a strong attachment and know each other, and I think that’s an amazing thing.

“On the other side, there’s naturally a huge amount of pressure and there’s an expectation that you always have the answer to everything.

Tomáš Baťa,  photo: Archiv Bata Brands SA,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“Which is not always the case – we’re all just human [laughs].”

I’m sure people are going, Your name’s on the building – you must know everything!

“‘You must know everything – this isn’t working, what do we do?!’

“Good ideas come from everywhere and when it comes to these kinds of things humility is the biggest tool.

“It’s a concept that is not always practiced in the Czech Republic and it was a little bit novel for them at first but they grew to like it [laughs]”

Your great-grandfather [Tomáš Baťa] is a really legendary figure in the Czech Republic. What did you hear about him from your family growing up?

“I heard a lot of stories about him, especially from my grandfather.

“I heard obviously all the epic stories about his success and him sending men around the world to look for opportunities.

“You’ve probably heard of the story where one sends a telegram saying, Nobody here is wearing any shoes: no opportunities, and the other one says, Nobody’s wearing any shoes: opportunities unlimited.

“And then I heard a lot of the real stories, because I think sometimes these things are all romanticised.

“Not everything was easy. That’s the first thing. The thing you really learn is the persistence is incredible – they went through challenges every day.

“And these were young guys. We tend to think of Tomáš Baťa as an old man, but these guys he was training were 18, 19, going and setting up businesses and running factories.

“It was like the Silicon Valley of today.

“The shoe passion was a developed one. I can’t say I was born a lover of shoes.”

“So I think it was really the nitty-gritty stories that we had the privilege to learn about.”

Growing up, when did you first take an interest in the shoe business?

“You know, I was always involved in the shoe business somehow.

“My family holidays were to shoe factories, as a kid.

“So I was always around it. I would say I was always interested more on the business side than on the shoe side when I was young.

“I liked the fundamentals of business, the concept of business being team effort and things like that.

“Especially when you’re young and you do lots of sports… I went to boarding school in the UK, so it resonated very well with me.

“And the shoe passion was a developed one.

“I can’t say I was born a lover of shoes. It wasn’t the thing that made me wake up in the morning.

Baťa store at Wenceslas Square,  Prague,  photo: BataLTD,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“But as I got to learn more about it and started to appreciate it, I started to like it.

“So I was probably in my late teens really when I started to appreciate the art and what it was to make shoes.”

How inevitable was it that you would enter the family business?

“It definitely wasn’t inevitable. Our family puts no pressure on family members to join the family business – none at all.

“It’s completely up to you and you have to be hired by the company.

“Of course, you have some advantages – it’s not too often they don’t hire you, but they could give you a pretty small position if they wanted to, right?

“I got convinced by the CEO at the time. My dad had been CEO a while earlier and had retired and left the company.

“The CEO who took it over was a lifelong Bata guy. He had started out as a 16-year-old as a slipper buyer in Italy.

“He had an apprenticeship and worked his way up, travelled the world.

“There were no family members working in the company and he called me one day.

“I was working in the shoe industry, but at a different company, after university and he called me and said, Come back, you know this business and the company needs some family involvement.

“First I was a little hesitant – do I really want to do it? There are tremendous family pressures of being in a family business.

“But in the end I decided to and I haven’t looked back since.”

“There are about 25 countries where I’d say we’re the number one brand in the country.”

Today, where are Bata shoes made?

“All over the place, is the short answer.

“I mean, we have production facilities in 23 countries. We also have sourcing partners in many other countries.

“Of what we sell we manufacture 55 to 60 percent in our own fully owned factories and the other 40 percent in partner factories.”

Are they still made here in the Czech Republic?

“We have a factory in the Czech Republic, yes. We have a factory in the Zlín region making specifically leather outdoor shoes.

“But we look at our network as a global supply chain.

“So just because a shoe is made in the Czech Republic doesn’t mean it will just be sold here. It can be sold anywhere.

“If you go to a Bata store in Prague, for example, you’ll find Czech-made shoes, you’ll find Indian-made shoes, but we try to make sure that the standard is indistinguishable wherever it’s made.”

What countries is Bata aimed at? In what markets is Bata relatively big?

“Our brand is very successful in Asia. India is a huge market for us.

“Funnily enough, Italy is a huge market for us. There’s a Czech expression, to take wood to the forest, and it’s kind of funny that we’re teaching the Italians how to make shoes [laughs].

Zlín,  photo: Kristýna Maková
“South America’s another big region for us. There are about 25 countries where I’d say we’re the number one brand in the country and we’re present in about 70 other countries where we’re amongst the top brands.”

You’ve spent time in South America – did you ever visit the Bata towns that were set up there, I know by a member of a different branch of the Bata family [Jan Antonín Baťa established a number of towns in Brazil]?

“I lived in Chile and there are two Bata towns in Chile. One is called Peñaflor and the other one is called Melipilla. Those ones I knew very well, working there.

“In Brazil there were three towns. They’re not active any more so they’re quiet towns these days, but I’ve gone and visited them out of curiosity.

“They’re pretty amazing, I have to say.

“I’ve seen probably the majority of the Bata towns throughout the world and what is amazing in all of them is that, whether the factory is working or not any more, the spirit of the people is still there.

“If you go to Peñaflor in Chile, it’s really like going to another country. You feel like you’re in this kind of European town, not just from the architecture point of view but also from the culture point of view.

“The people are slightly different than you would find elsewhere.

“I think that’s good. There’s community responsibility.

“Even in Brazil I saw that. Brazil is not a very clean place and if you go to these Bata towns they may not be the most affluent places but everything was organised and clean. You could see there was respect.

“I think Zlín is the same. You see respect. Maybe not everything has always gone their way but there’s respect for their town, their community, and I think that’s a great legacy.”

Tomáš Jan Baťa  (Thomas's grandfather),  photo: Martina Hřibová
Your family history is so much tied to the history of the Czech Republic. How does that make you feel, to have this deep family connection with the country?

“We’re very proud of it, of course. It’s an amazing privilege for the family and the company.

“I think just the message – the company and the history and the founding, the story of Tomáš Baťa, coming from the middle of nowhere and having an inclusive vision. An outward-looking vision.

“I think that’s a really important word: outward-looking.

“That’s amazing. It’s a great legacy for the country and I hope it can be expanded on.

“In a time when everyone’s looking inwards, it’s the right time to look outwards. And I hope that lesson can be learnt.”