Tomáš Baťa: the entrepreneur and philanthropist who built Zlín

Tomáš Baťa

The name ‘Zlín’ has been inextricably linked with businessman Tomáš Baťa ever since the beginning of the twentieth century – so much so that, despite the word bearing no resemblance to his name, the town was renamed in 1949 by the communist leadership, who evidently found the original name to be too closely associated with the buccaneering capitalist shoe king.

Zlín with Baťa architecture | Photo: The Museum of South East Moravia in Zlín

However, despite the communists’ best efforts, the name and memory of Tomáš Baťa could not be entirely erased, and after 40 years of being officially known as ‘Gottwaldov’, after the first Communist leader of Czechoslovakia, Klement Gottwald, the town quickly changed its name back to Zlín after the Velvet Revolution.

Lenka Čechmánková from the Museum of south-eastern Moravia in Zlín says that during those four decades, the town’s new name never stuck.

“It was officially used but I think people didn’t really like to call it that, they were still using Zlín.”

Nowadays, Tomáš Baťa’s indelible legacy can still be seen everywhere in the city, not only in the many buildings, streets and institutions that bear his name, but also in the architecture. Although shoe production in Zlín stopped decades ago, the buildings in the former industrial district are still standing (although many of them had to be rebuilt after bombing during World War II) and are used nowadays as company and government offices, restaurants, and coffee shops. Much of the rest of the town was also built by Baťa, who had to provide housing and recreation for the hordes of workers his company employed.

Production in the Baťa factory in Zlín,  1935 | Photo: SOkA Zlín,  FAZ,  obálka 6653

A family of shoemakers

Tomáš Baťa was born in 1876 in Zlín, Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He founded the Bata Shoe Company in 1894, at the age of only 18, with his brother Antonín and sister Anna. However, Anna left the company after she got married and Antonín died in 1908 from tuberculosis, so from then on Tomáš had sole control over the company (hence why his name has been remembered while the other two siblings have mostly faded into obscurity).

Shoe Museum in Zlín | Photo: Saskia Mišová,  Czech Radio

The siblings’ father, also called Antonín, had been a cobbler and the family had a long history of shoemaking, spanning eight generations and over three hundred years. It was from his father that Tomáš learned the trade that allowed him to found the company, at the time still using traditional methods of shoemaking by hand.

Innovation and inspiration

Baťa exhibition | Photo:  Daniel Ordóñez,  Radio Prague International

But Baťa was nothing if not an innovator, and it wasn’t long before he started modernising, installing steam-driven machines in 1899. In 1904, he read a newspaper article about new machines being made in the United States for the manufacturing of shoes. He travelled to Lynn, a city outside Boston that was the centre of the world footwear industry at the time, and returned to Zlín six months later with ideas for mechanised production techniques that allowed the Baťa Shoe Company to become one of the first mass producers of shoes in Europe.

But he didn’t only return with inspiration for mass production techniques, says Lenka Čechmánková.

Zlín | Photo: Radio Prague International

“At the beginning of the 20th century, Tomáš Baťa decided to go to America because he was curious about how they were working over there and he wanted to learn more. And when he was over there, he got inspired by the factory buildings to the point that he brought the plans for the factory buildings back from America, and after he returned, he started building according to those plans.”

In fact, Baťa followed the plans so exactly that even the building measurements remained the same. For example, the factory buildings have reinforced concrete skeletons made of columns 6.15 metres apart.

“This is kind of a strange number – maybe you’re asking yourself why the number is like this. Well, it’s because of the plans that were brought straight from America, so these 6 metres and 15 centimetres are 20 feet.”

Lynn wasn’t the only place Baťa visited in the United States – he travelled around the country gathering inspiration and ideas. Another very influential visit was to Detroit, Michigan, the home of Henry Ford – the founder of Ford Motor Company, chief developer of the assembly line technique of mass production, and creator of the first automobile that middle-class Americans could afford, the Model T.

Tomáš Baťa | Photo: Bata Shoe Company,  CC BY 3.0

“He visited the Ford factories and that was very important for the Bata company, because that’s where he got inspired by Henry Ford and got the idea to start making shoes on a production line, which he introduced to his factories in 1927. That really changed things in the Bata company and was a big change for the factory.”

Tomáš Baťa was not only unafraid to experiment with new technologies, but was also willing to take bold financial risks in order to save his company. He brought the company from the brink of bankruptcy several times: first of all in the summer of 1895, not long after the company was first founded. The firm was already facing financial difficulties, but Tomáš’s idea to sew shoes from canvas instead of leather saved the company and helped it grow from 10 to 50 employees.

Tomáš Baťa with his family | Photo: Tomáš Baťa Foundation

The next crisis was at the start of World War I. Fortunately, Baťa managed to get a huge contract with the Austro-Hungarian military for 50,000 pairs of army boots. This once again saved the company from bankruptcy – and also saved the factory workers from having to serve in the army, as they were required to stay at home to make the boots.

The end of the war brought yet more economic woes, as after World War I the company naturally lost the military contract. In addition, an economic crisis hit which meant ordinary people weren’t buying shoes and the company had to let go of a lot of workers. But Baťa once again managed to save the company, by lowering the prices of Bata shoes by 50 percent in 1922, with the company's workers agreeing to a temporary 40 percent reduction in wages in exchange for Baťa providing food, clothing, and other necessities at half-price.

Philanthropy and welfare

Baťa was also something of a social philanthropist, in the vein of other industrialists of his day. He strived for the Baťa Shoe Company to be not just a source of private wealth, but a means of improving living standards within the community and providing customers with good value for their money. He introduced the five-day workweek and paid his workers well, as Čechmánková describes.

Baťa,  Lindt and Euro buildings on Wenceslas Square in Prague | Photo: Oleg Fetisov,  Radio Prague International

“The lowest-paid worker in the Bata factory got about CZK 300 per week, but it was usually higher, this was just the lowest-paid worker. It depended of course on their position in the factory. These salaries in the Bata factory were really good, they were above average for the time, so a lot of people were coming here after the First World War.”

In addition, it was Baťa's policy to set up entire villages around the factories he built for his workers, with houses, schools and entertainment facilities. These villages can be seen in countries around the world, not only in Europe but as far afield as Canada, Brazil, and India – but the original “Bata village” was in Zlín.

Houses of Baťa factory workers | Photo: Jana Volková,  Czech Radio

As Čechmánková describes, he turned the town from a provincial backwater into an industrial hub.

“At the end of the 19th century, Zlín was a really small town – it was basically a village of around 3,000 people. So when there was a huge influx of people coming here between the wars, they didn’t have anywhere to live, because there weren’t enough houses. So that’s why the Bata factory decided to start building houses for their workers.”

The Bata houses, with their red brick walls and flat rooves, are very distinctive – especially in Czechia, where this architectural style is uncommon.

“There are three types of houses: quarter houses, which means there are four living units in one house; semi-detached houses, with two living units in one house; and detached houses, with just one living unit.”

Zlín’s Letná district, the so-called “Bata village”, has rows and rows of these types of red-brick houses, which are nowadays protected buildings due to their historical and architectural significance. Lenka Čechmánková explains a little about what life in these houses was like for the workers of the Bata company who rented them.

Zlín | Photo: Roman Verner,  Czech Radio

“These houses were very modern at the time because they had electricity, running water, and flushing toilets. Right after the First World War, flushing toilets were definitely not very common. Each house had a small garden which was not meant for growing vegetables, but for relaxing after work. In general, these houses were meant for relaxing and for family life.”

Since these houses were only for married workers of the Bata company to live in with their families, single workers had to live in dormitories with their own private rooms and shared bathrooms. But for the families living in the Bata houses, there was significantly more space – each living unit had two floors, usually with a bathroom, kitchen and living room on the ground floor, and bedrooms for parents and children on the first floor.

Houses of Baťa factory workers | Photo:  Daniel Ordóñez,  Radio Prague International

“It was typical for the stairs to the first floor to be very narrow and steep, so each living unit had to have a big window on the first floor through which they moved furniture to the first floor, because it was impossible to move furniture up the stairs.”

The houses were also made to be affordable. The rent started at CZK 15 for a quarter house and went up to CZK 35 per week for a detached house, making the rent only around 5 to 10 percent of the lowest-paid worker’s salary – something that renters in today’s overcrowded cities can only dream of.

Film studios

The film studios in Zlín | Photo: Zlín Film Festival

Tomáš Baťa’s legacy can also be seen in Zlin’s film legacy, which continues to this day in the form of the Zlín International Film Festival for Children and Youth. Zlin’s film studios were originally built to make Bata commercials, as Čechmánková describes.

“First they had commercials for their products produced externally in the film studios in Prague, but then the Bata company decided it would be better if they made their own commercials - it would be much cheaper and faster. So they built film studios here in Zlín. After that, cartoons for children and other movies were also produced there, and the popularity of the film studios grew.”

An early demise

Jan Antonín Baťa | Photo: SOkA Zlín,  sbírka fotografií Zlín,  obálka č. 353,  poř. č. 4

Tomáš Baťa didn’t live to see his factories get bombed in World War II or to see his company nationalised after the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia – he died in 1932 at the age of 56 in a plane crash at an airport in Otrokovice, around 10km from Zlín. He had intended to go to Switzerland, where the Bata company’s headquarters are now located, to open a new factory there. His half-brother, Jan Antonin Baťa, younger than Tomáš by 22 years, took over as head of the company.

At the time of Tomáš’s death, the Baťa company employed 16,560 people and maintained 1,645 shops and 25 enterprises. Tomáš Baťa had been immensely popular among the local people, which showed in the fact that he had also been elected mayor of Zlín, a position which he held at the time of his death.

Plane crash of Tomáš Baťa | Photo:  Daniel Ordóñez,  Radio Prague International

Lenka Čechmánková thinks his popularity continues to this day:

“There are a lot of people who come here saying that their grandparents or great-grandparents worked in the Bata company. There are still a lot of people out there because the Bata company had a lot of workers.

“I think people do realise that the Bata company and Tomáš Baťa had a big influence on Zlín itself and how big it is now. I would say they do see him in a positive light – a lot of people come here because they want to learn more, even people who live in Zlín.”

Author: Anna Fodor
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