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Tomáš Baťa, the Henry Ford of Czechoslovakia

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A legendary industrialist and creator of the world-famous shoe empire, Tomáš Baťa was a pioneer of technology, advertising, marketing, and business management.

Born April 3rd, 1876 in Zlín, Czechoslovakia, Baťa’s father was also a shoemaker, continuing the family tradition that had been going since the 1600s. With his 11 siblings, Tomáš Baťa learnt the tricks of the trade early on in life, before travelling to Vienna to learn more about the shoe industry.  

Baťa created his first shoe company with his brother Antonín, and sister Anna. All three of them put every penny they had into the business, and poured a lot of effort into systemizing everything, from modern (at the time) manufacturing methods, and introduced fixed schedules and weekly wages for employees. Unfortunately, the business went bankrupt fairly quickly.

Baťa wasn’t ready to give up. He took a different approach and invented an affordable, light canvas shoe that was more accessible to the average person which became popular in the country. First, he used his profits to build a bigger factory, and then he bought a trip to the US to work on an assembly line at Ford to get inspired. Later, the Czech eventually got his nickname as the “Czech Henry Ford”.

Tomáš Baťa, the Henry Ford of Czechoslovakia image 31
Baťa statue in the Czech Republic/Karelj/Public Domain

Taking some pointers from Ford, Baťa came back to Zlín and implemented a new system. He became more demanding of his employees, introducing new incentives for them and deducting wages when they underperformed. When his workers decided to strike, he ignored them completely and just replaced them with new workers, hiring unskilled labourers and training them up to par. During this period, Baťa got married to Marie Menčíková and had one son named Tomáš II.

By 1917, the company was making two million pairs of shoes a year and had so many employees that Baťa had to start building housing facilities for them. As Zlín’s population grew with the company, Baťa started building schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure to keep up with the growth. Some say that Baťa built the town of Zlín. 

Tomáš Baťa, the Henry Ford of Czechoslovakia image 32
Tomas Bata Memorial in Zlín, Czech Republic/Kkovex/CC BY-SA 4.0

When times became tough after the first world war, Baťa used his marketing prowess to accommodate the now thrifty customer base. Shoes became 50% cheaper, and his workers agreed to a 40% salary cut in exchange for food, clothes, and other perks. In the 20s, he began what is now known as “Baťa pricing,” or knocking a penny off of prices to make them look cheaper. Shoes were no longer 10 CZK but 9.99 CZK. Baťa’s slogan was: “Our customer – Our Master”.

By 1930, Czechoslovakia became one of the world’s leading footwear exporters and before the second war started, Baťa employed over 40 000 people. In 1932, when Baťa was on his way to see one of his new stores, his plane crashed near Zlín and he died at age 58. 

The company was handed over to his stepbrother, and later his son Tomáš II. To this day, the Baťa empire is still in the family, and its recognizable red logo still survives in over 70 different countries, making it one of the biggest shoe manufacturers ever. 

Featured image by Bata Brands SA/CC BY-SA 3.0

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