For many of us, the mention of the word Bata only invokes images of school shoes. We quickly flashback to a period in the 80s and 90s when the ‘back to school’ slogan was the in-thing. But Bata is more than just school and shoes.
The 117-year old company actually makes a range of other things. Take, for instance, the legendary Safari boots that now come in fancy finishings and colours to top-of-the-range sports shoes. Bata also make a range of ladies’ handbags and travel bags.
But this is not what our story is about. Our focus is instead on the interesting genesis of this multi-million shilling enterprise that currently has over 100 retail outlets in Kenya alone.
Bata was founded in 1894 by Tomáš Baťa in the city of Zlín in southeastern Moravia which is today part of the Czech Republic. Bat’a came from a lineage of cobblers that had practised the skill for more than 300 years spanning 8 generations. His brother Antonín Bat’a and sister, Anna, were partners.
This modest family heritage might have continued on for more generations had a windfall by way of a large World War I order for military shoes not changed it from the small outfit into the giant it is today.
Spanning over 70 countries and laying claim to the production of a staggering 14 billion shoes around the world since its inception, Bata is one of the world’s biggest multinational retailers, manufacturers and distributors of footwear and accessories today.
Tomáš Bat’a established the organisation on 24 August 1894 with 800 Austrian guldens and some USD 320.00 he had inherited from his mother. As a start-up firm, it went by the name T. & A. Bata Shoe Company.
In 1932 Tomáš died in a plane crash at the Zlín airport while attempting to take off under bad weather conditions and his half-brother Jan Antonín Bat’a became head of the company.
It was Tomáš Bat’a who coined the famous ‘Bata price’ where the prices of all Bata products almost always ended with the number 9. The concept behind this unique pricing model was that 99 or 19.99 looks, apparently, much better than a rounded number such as 100 or 20, even though the difference is just 1 currency unit.
The 72-year-old Kenyan outfit has a base in the picturesque tea and coffee-growing town of Limuru on the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley, about 48 KM (30 MI) Northwest of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.
The Limuru Bata base was (and still is) a landmark in the town such that even Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the celebrated writer, would describe it vividly in his childhood memoir, ‘Dreams in a Time of War’.
As boys growing up, he says, they would, at times, take a longer path home from school past the Bata factory just so they could while away the evening as they listened to the sweet tales of the day’s storyteller.
Next time you pick a Safari boot at a Bata shop, you are buying more than a shoe. You are acquiring part of a legacy spanning more than 3 centuries and 8 generations of craftsmanship. Now you know!