Interview with Thomas Bata: „My grandad always taught me that happiness and positivity is a choice in life“
Thomas Archer Bata is a great-grandson of Tomáš Baťa, the famous founder of the Bata company and currently is a member of the world board of the company. Previously, he handled company operations in various managerial positions. Together we discussed his studies and the original Bata values and even hockey.
What is your current affiliation with the Bata company? What is your main project?
My main affiliation at the moment is on the overall shareholding side, so looking at the overall strategy and diversification of the business. The Bata business is primarily a retail company, but we also do real estate, investments and few other things. So, I kind of look after all these new activities. I am a member of the world board of the company. The headquarters is located in Lausanne.
You worked in Prague between 2016 and 2018 as the global marketing director. What was your experience?
I worked in the operation of the company for eight years, so until last year. Then I decided to do another degree, at Harvard, where I was for a year, and it was a nice break. I met a lot of interesting people, before that I was two years in Prague as the Chief Marketing Officer of the overall company. We wanted to put some common standards across different countries, because the Bata business is very international but quite different in every market, because of the history and for many reasons. We have a really great team here in Prague still continuing now, looking after all these initiatives and great talent in the marketing agencies here.
How was Harvard? Did you do a business degree?
Exactly, I did a business degree. It was really great, I have to say. What is different between Harvard and other schools, I feel is, one, the teachers are really spectacular, because they are real experts in their area, and they sit on many boards of different companies, so they have real exposure to real business experience. They are on big boards, serious companies, start-ups, all kinds of companies. The second thing that is amazing about Harvard is the other students in your class, because they all have very interesting experiences and backgrounds. The people I worked with were from every industry you can imagine, every country you can imagine, and you have this environment where you are not working, you so don’t have the stress of having a job, but it is very busy. Every day you are starting early in the morning and stopping late at night. It’s a very different feeling than when you are doing a job. You’re just learning all the time. You are also learning when working, but this is only thing you’re doing is learning and talking to people.
You had originally received a degree in political science in Edinburgh. Why did you choose political science? Why not business?
My feeling with business is that the best way to learn business is by doing generally, and then to learn by trial and error, and then brush up your skills as you need. I enjoyed economics and politics a lot when I was at school. I liked to read all the political theorists. I liked sociology, different social sciences. I loved history, all these kinds of things, that all fit nicely together under the political science degree.
Would you say that such a degree is useful for a businessman? Was it helpful?
It didn’t help me with business in the technical sense, but it helps a lot with soft skills, because basically political science is about arguments, that’s basically it. You are doing research and making arguments and trying to convince people about a point of view or direction. So, I think from that perspective, it really helps with business. It helps you to create win-win scenarios, to listen to people with different points of view, understand why they have a different points of view. The best kind of business is, we believe and we were always taught, that business needs to be good for everybody. Americans call it a win-win; this is basically the fundamental level of the Bata company values, that everybody wins from the prosperity that they created together, and I think, when business is done this way, it’s great. So, probably this is where political science helps.
Speaking of education, you have already partly answered my next question. What do you think of formal education in business?
I think that the traditional MBA, the two-year MBA is finished. In the future, the business degrees must be much much shorter. Degrees need to be tight in with work practice. So maybe six months on campus when you really do the skills, then practical experience, then you come back for a month, but certainly not like solid two years away from work. The difference from today and maybe 40 years ago is that you just have so much information available. Most 15-year-olds today can read a P&L of a company, they can go on the internet, look at the NASDAQ stocks etc. The basic understanding of business fundamentals is so much better than it was in the past, and also people just learn faster because they are used to using new methods. They can do remote teaching. You are never going to replace the classical method atmosphere when you have the human contact with your classmates but I don’t think you need the such a long time anymore. I can see lot of business school innovating and trying to change, because they understand this as well. It’s hard for people to spend so much money and time away from real life.
Your great–grandfather is a legendary person. I suppose, you must have heard many stories about him. Could you relate one, which would characterize him the most?
I had the privilege to hear a lot about him. My grandfather would talk a lot about his experiences back in Zlín and also about traveling around the world. There is one story I always loved the most about my great-grandfather. My grandad always taught me that happiness and positivity is a choice in life, you can choose it. It sounds stupid to say, but he is actually right. You take the right attitude and solve problems. It’s easy for me to say, I have had a relatively easy life. But when you travel around the world and you see all these different people in different situations, and there are people who choose to be happy and people who choose not to be happy, and you really notice this, and it does not necessarily have to be linked with money and all other these kind of things. We think, it’s an attitude. It’s really important. The other thing is to just to be able positive about opportunities. There is one story when Bata company was growing, they had a shortage of materials; they sent two gentlemen from Zlín, one to Africa and one to Indonesia to look for raw materials and when they sent the message back. One of them said: ‘We found the rubber whatever, but there is no opportunity for business because nobody is wearing shoes.’ The other guy, who went to Africa, wrote back and said: ‘I am staying in Africa, send me the equipment, nobody is wearing shoes, unlimited opportunities.’ That’s the attitude. It has become a normal part of life today, but back then it was not normal. People didn’t think this way. It is an amazing fact that someone from like Zlín, which 120 years ago was really the middle of nowhere, could have this attitude and this positivity and determination. It was not always easy for him. He failed a lot before he succeeded but he kept trying and learning.
You suggested that the beginnings were tough. What was the most important thing for the later success?
I guess it was the persistence, and there was one thing he realized at one point that he was only going to succeed if everybody around him was also succeeding. This is where the base of the Bata philosophy came from. Building, looking after communities. That was not how he started the business. At the beginning, he didn’t like the idea to industrialize footwear. They had always been shoemakers my family for generations, then they realized the reason why it was not working is that the workers didn’t care. When they felt like they were owners of the company, like a meritocracy, that they would be beneficial from the extra prosperity that was created, the company started to work, so I think that was it. And then more determination. The famous thing when the company really grew was the Austrian military contract, when he went to Vienna and tried to win the business, and they kept saying no, because they didn’t want non-Germans, to be selling the shoes. They couldn’t believe his prices because they were so low. He just kept going and eventually he got the business.
Would you say that the original Bata values (such as optimism, persistence, caring about employees) are still relevant today?
It sounds cliché, but the base of the values at the fundamental level is very valid. I think that the way they were executed in the past the factory town etc. is obsolete, because the things you didn’t have in 1930s the universal healthcare, while today basically every Western country provides universal health care, university education, so it’s no longer an issue. I don’t think the role of companies is to deliver these kinds of things to people, but I think absolutely the spirit of having everybody as a stakeholder is more relevant than ever, and absolutely the attitude. We are living in a world that’s becoming unequal. Inequality is becoming worse and worse problem and people are choosing to segregate themselves, and you are getting rich people to just live together, and they never talk to anybody else. So, you are getting these big social tensions. I think that entrepreneurs and business people are very important in creating wealth, but it’s also up them to keep their feet on the ground and understand the people that work for them. The biggest problem in the modern world with business is that companies are not really seeing employees as they should. They call them human capital, not real people, and this is kind of the problem. We are overcompensating certain jobs, like managerial jobs etc. and undervaluing, frankly, for example technical jobs, and a lot of these things, and then the gap is getting bigger and bigger. I think that business people need to be the solution to this problem, because I can tell you if governments like Corbyn etc. in England start killing businesses, this is going to make everybody poor, and it doesn’t need to be like this.
I understand that you spent a lot of time with your grandfather (Tomáš Baťa Jr.). How would you characterize him as a person and as an entrepreneur? If the two can be separated.
He was definitely an entrepreneur. The positivity he had was infectious to everybody around. I am not saying he was always happy, you can get angry, but he was always fair. People always felt like he cared about them, he had the best interest. He would invest in our businesses in a lot of countries that nobody else wants to invest in, for example in countries like Zimbabwe, which has been through many crises. We always stayed, because we always think that our role is to do something, that our obligation to our employees is to be there, and until we basically had no choice, because we run out of money etc., we want to support those communities. He was so good at that, and he was so good at motivating people, getting people to believe in one, in something together.
The concept of Bata towns is famously linked with the company. What is the current situation? The towns are still all around the world, right?
In the developing countries it is similar as it was in Zlín in the beginnings. If you go to India, Africa, the Bata towns are still working quite similar way because in those countries the governments are not providing necessarily basic services. The company is still doing it, and what makes me happy is that sometimes you go around the world, and you talk with union leaders for example, and maybe you don’t have the same philosophy, but they are always very grateful. It makes me always very happy when you talk to these people, and they tell you how Bata allow them to send their kids to college etc. It makes it all worth it, we can have a positive impact on their lives.
Your company is operating around the world. Apparently, many nations think of Bata as a local company, is that right?
In many countries it’s true. In India they think its Indian, in Thailand they think it’s their local company, Australians think it’s Australian etc. The company has been really successful in Italy. First of all, the company expanded very early. There were not many multinational companies in the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s. The company was going to new countries, and then the philosophy of the company is to do everything locally – to manufacture locally, to hire people locally, train them locally. In many ways, the company did belong to those countries as well. You see it was very decentralized business model and our managers were, and still are, mostly the local people. In the past, it was unusual as most multinationals were sending e.g. Americans. With us it was the opposite, we are taking the people from every country helping to grow that way.
What about your personal involvement in the family business? Would you say that it was something inevitable or just natural?
It’s a really interesting question this one. You have sense of obligation, and I always loved working with the company, but at the same time, I wouldn’t say that when I was young my love and life was shoes; this was not something I was born loving. It is something that over time I appreciated more. When I was young, I spent my holidays going to shoe factories, and I was really angry. My friends where having fun, and I had to go to a shoe factory. Back then, if anything, I almost resented it. It changes when you get older. I worked in the company, and I realized what an amazing organization it is.
Is the name Bata more a responsibility or an advantage for you?
I am very proud of course. Honestly, it’s very emotional, not just for me but for the whole family. It is a big emotional connection, because it is so deep in the family DNA, because my family basically had to move many times across the world. What kept them together was this business and the employees of company were always like family members. They started in a company, and they were in a company for like 40 years. They would come to a dinner at the house. They were like extended family let’s call it. As a child, I knew all these executives of the company; they were like uncles, not a real uncle of course:). They grew up in the company, and they had, and they still do, such affinity towards the family and towards the company. It’s very nice. I would say it’s a very nice bond. So, it’s neither a commitment nor an advantage. It’s in the middle. I think the danger of looking to the past is to focus too much on it and not on the future. That’s something we are working really hard at – thinking what is the future going to look like, and how can we make a positive impact on the future.
So, what is the vision of the company?
It’s something we are always talking about and working on. From the pure business sense, traditional retail is changing; you are aware of this. Many retailers are going away, are closing, e-commerce retailers are taking over, and then you have the fourth industrial revolution, automatization. What’s going to happen when we don’t need factory workers any more.
Do you think it’s going to happen?
One day it will happen. So, the issue is how do we adapt to that in way it’s good for the business and good for the communities. This is a challenge because if we take the past when the shoe industry left Europe and North America, back in the 80s and 90s, there were quite big trade barriers protecting the textile and shoe industries; basically overnight these barriers where torn down, and as result all the Chinese imports came in and all the industries where closed. So, that’s why there are almost no shoe factories left in Europe. Countries like France or England used to be huge shoe making countries. We have factories mostly in Asia today; we have some in South America; we have I think 22 factories throughout the world. In Europe, we have one in Holland, and one in the Czech Republic of course.
Can you compare the regulatory environment, the environment for doing business around the world?
Every country is very different. We try as much as possible to have common standards, and many times it’s difficult. Many times, we tried historically to put Canadian standards wherever we do business, and nobody else is doing this:) So, it can be challenging, because the local people need to be educated on these things etc.
Is the environment friendly to entrepreneurs in the Czech Republic compared to other countries?
I think that in the Czech Republic could be more friendly, and if I look at the objectives we have, hopefully, we can as a family and a company give as a legacy in the Czech Republic is to encourage entrepreneurs. Because I really believe the way more prosperity will come is by having homegrown businesses that are internationally successful. If you look at small countries, like Sweden or even Switzerland, why they have become let’s say wealthy, is because they have homegrown businesses that have become successful globally. If you look at the country like Sweden, smaller than Czech Republic. They have IKEA, Volvo, H&M. I can name fifty brands, fifty companies, those are great jobs, challenging high payed jobs. So, I think that Czech Republic needs to create more entrepreneurs. The policy has to make it easier for them to take the risk, and I also think that families need to let their kids take more risks. I think that Czech families, maybe because of the communist period, can be little bit shy to take let their kids take risks. My response to them would be that there is no better place in the world to take risks than in the Czech Republic. Honestly, if you don’t succeed, it’s not a huge problem. You can get easily a job, there is no unemployment. So, take a risk is what I would say to young people.
Would this be your message to young entrepreneurs?
Yes, go for it; you have nothing to lose. Honestly, maybe you will lose little bit of money and little time, but you are going to learn so much, and when you start your second business or you decide to have a career in a company, whatever, you are going to have so much valuable skills and experience. Maybe you will succeed, and you’ll be an entrepreneur. In the time of my great-grandfather, you can imagine, back then, if you failed, it was hard. There was no safety support network, no help, you are going to end up on the street. Today you have so much more support. So, all I can say is take the risk and think internationally. I think that not enough Czech business people are thinking internationally. For example, I saw some great businesses here, innovative ideas that could grow internationally. Why not, I said? They say maybe we can go to Germany. I say, why Germany because it’s next door? Why not go to Brazil? Why not go to Vietnam etc., where this opportunity would be.
What is the reason, in your opinion?
I think it’s still the hangover from the previous regime, and definitely young people are more adventurous, getting more and more adventurous. I encourage them to travel, take the risk, and I hope for them they will be very successful, and we’ll be talking about them instead of a 100 year- old entrepreneur
The legacy of your name in the Czech Republic is huge, especially in one particular city, which is Zlín. How do you remember, when you went for the first time to Zlín? When was that? What is your current connection to Zlín?
I go twice a year to Zlín. My first time was when I was a little child; it was probably in 1992. So, I was 4 years old, and we went to Zlín. First, we went to town Loučka (that’s where my family originally comes from). We planted trees, I remember that, and then we went to Zlín. We went around the factory, actually it was called Svit, the old Bata factory which was nationalized. I remember going, but I was very young, so I didn’t necessarily appreciate all the emotions that, for example, my grandfather was feeling. I go back as I am involved with the university and obviously with the company there as well, and honestly, I am very pleased with the progress Zlín is making. I really hope that the university could be a motor to create companies and jobs in Zlín that will keep people there and maybe even bring people there.
You have lived and travelled around the world. Do you feel Canadian, Czech; how would you describe yourself?
That’s a great question. A little bit of everything. I feel Swiss, Czech, Canadian…because I had such a mixture of experiences. So, it’s very difficult for me to say. I feel little bit at home and little bit like a foreigner in every country I go to. It’s not a bad thing.
I have to ask you a very personal and sensitive question. If there is an ice-hockey game Czech Republic vs. Canada, who do you support?
A draw is the best for me
Could you conclude or highlight the most important things you have learned from your grandfather and great-grandfather?
Treat everybody right, be persistent and positive. These are three important things. Treat everybody right, like they are your family (not just employees, even suppliers). Give everybody the benefit of the doubt, we say.
Thomas Archer Bata (32), born in Toronto, Canada, is a great-grandson of Tomáš Baťa (the founder of the Bata company). He is currently a member of the world board of the company. Previously, he handled company operations in various managerial positions. He also serves as a member of the Board of Governors of Tomas Bata University in Zlín. He holds a degree in Management from Harvard Business School and a degree in Political Science and Government from the University of Edinburgh.
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