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Forgotten Czechs: Tomáš Baťa

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“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
-Mark Twain


Although Czechs at home and abroad still often stumble upon a store bearing his surname, only a handful usually take a second to remember the story of one of the greatest businessmen this land has ever birthed. Tomáš Baťa is clearly worthy of at least a mention, since despite economic crises and a world war, he managed to start an international company from literally nothing. He was the king of shoemaking at his time, and still managed to focus on politics, education and his family.

The fate of Tomáš Baťa was closely intertwined with the city of Zlín from the very beginning, as he was born in the South Moravian town in 1876, while it still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His mother died when he was just 8 years old, so him and his three siblings had to move to nearby Uherské Hradiště, as their father had remarried and decided to resettle. The father of the family was a shoemaker, as per the tradition in the family, possibly spanning as far as 1580. Thus, Tomáš had a special relationship with shoes from his childhood.

When he was 14 years old, he decided to start living independently and run away from home. At that time, child labour was nothing out of the ordinary, so he soon found employment in a company that focused on building machinery for shoemaking. Here he used his knowledge about shoes to start envisioning ways in which the production of them could become cheaper and more efficient. His ideas were probably already good, as they soon got him fired from his job, reportedly due to his employer’s fear of competition. Tomáš had to return home for a couple years, during which he further honed his skills as both a shoemaker and a businessman.

In 1894, he finally stopped being his father’s employee and became an employer, after he founded his first own shoemaking business together with his two siblings. After unsuccessfully applying for a permit elsewhere, they ended up being allowed to start a business in their hometown, Zlín. Already, their practices were revolutionary, as their 10 workers got paid a fixed salary for the hours they worked. While it may seem natural to us now, paying workers a fixed wage was a very new concept in our lands at that time. Nevertheless, the company faced foreclosure soon after its inception, when the eldest sibling of Tomáš Baťa, his brother Antonín, had to serve his time in the military. It took a lot of perseverance for Tomáš to save his business. According to him, he had to carry leather from the train station 10km away on his own back, just to save money for transport.

Fortunately, this period was soon over, as Tomáš managed to get his company out of debt by putting his health on the line and also coming up with clever ideas. To save costs, he decided to start making shoes out of textile instead of leather. Furthermore, he marketed these new shoes extensively, which brought the company great success. Finally the company could expand in numbers of workers and machinery. In 1900, he already employed 120 workers, or as he called them ‘co-workers’, a term he used despite the fact that he was their superior.

He continued to expand his company through clever ideas he collected during a short trip he made to the United States. He built houses for his workers in Zlín, signed official contracts with his employees, and penalized those who made poor quality shoes. All this prepared the company for a massive expansion during the war, when the company strategically located far from both fronts was tasked with producing more than half of all the shoes used by Austro-Hungarian soldiers during the Great War.

After the War, the company became an international shoemaking giant, with thousands of workers employed both in Zlín and around the world. All this growth was closely monitored by Tomáš, who urged his individual factories to make daily, weekly and yearly plans, be responsible for any products they accept from the logistics department, and pay their workers depending on the type of work they do and the hours they put in. Baťa was also a firm believer in lifelong education, so every year, he reportedly asked his workers how much they would like to earn, and provided them with the means to get to that salary, like free education. Baťa was also a great inspiration to the marketing industry, as his trademark invention of all prices ending with a nine (59 instead of 60, 999 instead of 1000), is used to this day thanks to its visual appeal to the customer.

As his company spread through Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, he also dedicated some of his time to the development of his hometown. Locals of Zlín should be thankful to him, as his workers made the city what it is now. Thanks to their numbers, it was not hard for Tomáš Baťa to win the elections and become the Mayor of Zlín. As the Mayor, he invested heavily in urban development with respect to nature, which imprinted the functionalist look onto the city. He also supported education outside of his company.
Tomáš Baťa tragically passed away in 1932 in a plane crash, during a business trip to Switzerland.

Nevertheless, he left behind a company with a good name and a soon prepared to lead it. No one could have known that the business would soon be practically destroyed by the takeover of Nazi and Communist occupants of the Czech lands, and western competitors free to proceed with their business would take the market over. Perhaps Tomáš Baťa would have found a way to overcome this adversity, if he were still alive.

Please, do not let him be forgotten.

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