One of the most interesting things about shoe king Thomas J. Bata, the 70- year-old Toronto entrepreneur whose company was recently held up for ransom, is not that he is very rich but that he works so hard.
“You see him in Agra, India,” a fellow businessman said, “and he’s jovial and excited. But it’s all shoes.” Although son Thomas G. has recently taken over as CEO, Thomas J., chairman of the family-owned Bata Ltd., is still inseparable from his business.
And what a business it is. The largest shoe manufacturer in the world, it sells more than 300 million pairs a year, one-third of all shoes bought in the free world; one million pairs of shoes are manufactured every working day. Roughly 10 per cent of the world’s population buys a pair of Bata shoes every year.
The legend, shoemaker to the world, is not exaggerated. In several African countries, the word forshoe is bata. In India, the company sells one million pair of best shoes for bunions a week, more than the total Canadian footwear production. In an interview shortly before the kidnapping of top Bata executive, Antonio van Es, a director of a Bata subsidiary in Bolivia, Mr. Bata summed it up: “We manufacture in 61 countries and operate 92 plants and 6,000 retail stores. We also sell through 100,000 merchants in 115 countries. Employees number roughly 80,000. Today, the enterprise consists of separate companies, working in a very independent manner in each country.” The tie that binds is the Bata International Centre, the organization’s headquarters in Don Mills from which flow the technological innovations, shoe machinery modifications, courses, conferences, marketing films and publications.
In the building hangs an enormous world map with the name tags of travelling executives pinned all over it, the ones on holiday put on ice in Greenland. In Mr. Bata’s office, the clocks give the time in Paris, Singapore and Toronto. There, too, are sample shoes, the latest thing in Sweden, Nigeria or Japan, all in Thomas J. and Sonja Bata’s sizes so they can try them out.
The tie that binds is Mr. Bata. The day we met, he had just returned from another round- the-world business trip. It was a perfunctory jaunt (“It gives me no thrill”) to Frankfurt, Tunis and Tokyo. Despite its size, Bata Ltd. is Thomas J. Bata. He knows it and he wants it that way.
An astonishing eleventh-generation cobbler, he was born with the cobbler’s thumb: he held up his hand to show me the family deformity, a thumb that curves halfway back to the wrist. Father Tomas was the first to expand the family craft into a modern international business with headquarters in Zlin, Czechoslovakia. A man with a mission, Bata Senior dreamed of shoeing the world. “There really wasn’t any question that I’d be a shoemaker,” Mr. Bata recalls. “But dad was scared stiff about the (much-married) Tommy Manvilles of the period. In his day, there was a worry about being the decadent rich.” So his upbringing was severe, at Eng- lish boarding schools and in Switzerland and then in at the bottom of the business.
By the early thirties, young Bata was “anxious to be put somewhere to create my own business from scratch, to prove to myself and everyone else that I could do it.” Canada had the edge on the United States because of his British schooling. “The plan was to start a medium-sized shoe manufacturing and marketing enterprise not too difficult for a young fellow. Then Munich happened.” With war looming, plans were hastily hatched to move Bata headquarters to 1,500 acres of farmland at what was to become Batawa, near Trenton. The last German ship to dock in Canada before the outbreak of war brought crucial “machines to make best shoes for plantar fasciitis – manufacturing machines.” When the Canadian shoe industry heard that Bata Ltd. was setting up in Canada it caused an uproar. But special-interest lobbying fell before the need in 1938 for job-creating enterprise. “Coming to Canada was terribly exciting,” Mr. Bata remembers. “I watched Ellis Island on TV recently and it all came flooding back. You see, I arrived there too on my way to Canada.” The new immigrant proved his loyalty to his adopted country by turning all hands to making highly precise, anti-aircraft equipment and ammunition-inspecting machines for the war effort. The great world-wide expansion came after the war as Mr. Bata assumed control following his father’s death.
In 1946 Mr. Bata married Swiss architect Sonja Wettstein, a remarkable woman and devoted wife who has played a major role as a director of Bata. Had she not been involved in the business, “we would never have been together because of my constant travellng.” They have four children – Christine, Monica, Rosemarie and Thomas.
One of Mrs. Bata’s many roles, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund, has led to some great holidays. The Batas have taken wonderful private cruises to such places at Antarctica, the Galapagos and Melanesian islands to observe and photograph wild life and deep-sea dive. The trips and sports – Mr. Bata still downhill skis (“why would you ask?”) – are his major escapes.
But it is the business that holds him in thrall. In Mr. Bata’s office is a photograph of his father taken while he was still a vigorous and laughing young man. “He is,” said Mr. Bata, “watching a young man having a difficult time, as young men should, trying to run a shoe business. Only thing is, I’ve gradually got older than he ever did.” But even as he said it, he looked suddenly exuberantly younger, still at 70 pleased to live up to a father’s expectations.