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Shoe Empire Survived History Unscuffed

The shadow of Adolf Hitler drove Czech shoe king Thomas Bata, 91, and the family name into exile. But today he feels like a global citizen.

November 06, 2005|Susanna Loof | Associated Press Writer

ZLIN, Czech Republic — From China through Africa to the outer reaches of the Americas, Bata has long been synonymous with shoes. But in the land where it was born, the company name was taboo for 40 years.

Today, in the Czech town where the worldwide family shoe empire was founded, the oldest living Bata is all smiles and understatement as he looks back, at age 91, on a life buffeted by the worst horrors of the 20th century.

How did he feel when the rise of Nazism forced him to flee his homeland? "Annoyed." And when the communists took over after World War II, seized his factory and declared Bata a capitalist evil? Again, "annoyed."

"One could have been very angry but one had to start life again," Thomas Bata said.

The place to start again was Canada, to which he exiled himself in 1938, as the stage was being set for Hitler's war. Czechoslovakia was dissolved the following year.

In 1945, having served with the Canadian army on the battlefield, Bata returned to his freshly liberated birthplace, but not for long.

"I found it very sad," said Bata, "because what we thought was liberation really became a dictatorship of the communists."

Anyone associated with the company faced persecution by the secret police, as did anyone named Bata, related or not, said Pavel Velev, who heads the Thomas Bata Foundation, based in the family's old villa in the east of the country.

"The Bata name was considered something very, very bad in our country," Velev said.

The regime gave the company a new name and it went on making shoes, but it was Bata, headquartered in Toronto, that remained a byword for footwear.

Bata didn't give up on his country. On Radio Free Europe he broadcast support to the dissident movement and offered his business as a vision of what could be -- "so that people would see that the democratic system, based on democratic economy, would be the most advantageous for them."

It took 40 years, but vindication finally came in 1989. As Eastern European communist dictatorships collapsed one by one in mostly peaceful revolutions, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident leader, playwright and president-in-waiting, asked Bata to return.

"Vaclav Havel sent me a message through my wife and said, 'Tom should come as soon as he can,' " Bata recalled.

He and his wife, Sonja, chartered a plane to fly them to Prague and filled it with fax machines, badly needed by the new leadership in those pre-Internet days.

Cheering crowds greeted them at the airport.

"I felt very emotional, because I had a tremendous, rip-roaring welcome, both when I arrived in Prague and when I came to Zlin and other towns," Bata said.

The house he grew up in was in disrepair. His wife asked to see one of the bedrooms, but their escorts refused. She insisted, however, and the reason for their reluctance became clear: In the room was a large bust of Klement Gottwald, Czechoslovakia's first communist president. The officials had moved it there hoping the Batas wouldn't see it.

Zlin is in a traditional shoemaking region, and Bata's family had been making shoes for generations. His father, Tomas, founded a company in 1894 that would later swell into the giant Bata Shoe Organization.

"There were an awful lot of barefoot people," Thomas Bata said. "Every time we read about the growth of the population in India or elsewhere, we are very happy to see that another customer has been born."

Bata's face is tan and remarkably smooth for his age. He wears a well pressed shirt and shiny leather shoes that he bought -- and paid for, he stresses -- at a Bata store in Prague. He waves his arms enthusiastically above his white hair as he explains with Old World charm the magic of shoes.

"Young ladies always want to have something fashionable, something nice that fits well, makes them look good," he said. "And this is our prime customer."

Each day, a million people try on shoes at 4,600 Bata shops in places including Congo, Bosnia, Bangladesh, Punta Arenas in Chile's deep south and Yellowknife in northern Canada. Bata has 40 factories in 26 countries, and stores in 50 countries on five continents. In many places, its logo is almost as commonplace as Coca-Cola. Its name is unknown in the United States, though its sporty Power brand and children's Bubblegummers are distributed in America.

In Zlin, the Bata heritage is evident in the red-brick buildings that once were factories, and the rows of sugar-cube-shaped houses the elder Bata built for his workers. The Bata home once served as a school for children of foreign communist leaders. Now Thomas Bata's old bedroom houses rows of computers for students.

Some of the old factory buildings are home to Thomas Bata University, whose board of directors is headed by Thomas Bata. Here there's an emphasis, not surprisingly, on researching shoes -- most famously the footwear worn by a man whose 5,300-year-old body was found preserved in an alpine glacier in 1991. Researchers replicated the shoes, took them on a mountain hike and pronounced them good enough for the modern foot.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. But Bata now feels less attached to either than he does to his adopted country, Canada.

Most of all, he said, he feels like a global citizen, proud of the jobs his factories generate worldwide and the millions of feet he keeps in reasonably priced shoes.

"In the old days, people were looking much more toward being of a certain town or village or even a small country," he said. "Today, the global outlook is permeating the whole population of the world."

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