Thomas G. Bata | Shoe bytes

Thomas G. Bata’s fondest memory of India goes back to when he was 12. That is when he first visited the country with his father and met prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who pinched his cheeks. “I still have that photo on my desk,” says Thomas, the chairman and owner of Bata, one of the most-known shoe brands in the world. Bata, the brand, is that one outstanding name in global shoe culture that provokes a story or memory in most people. “I remember Nehru called me over and hugged me when I was standing in a corner while my father was meeting factory workers. He gave me a sweet with varq (silver foil),” recalls Thomas.

We meet on a chilly December morning in New Delhi but that doesn’t dampen the Swiss-Canadian’s sunny side. He wears a suit with a striped shirt, no tie and—Bata shoes, of course. My shoes aren’t Bata and he notices that. “Just my job,” he says. Bata’s peripatetic chairman, based in Lausanne, Switzerland (the company’s headquarters since 2004), is in New Delhi to mark 120 years of the company set up by his grandfather, Tomáš Bat’a, in the small town of Zlín in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. In the business from Day 1, he knows the nuances of the shoe industry, but wears his knowledge with restrained elegance. The 66-year-old says the surname brings with it great responsibility. “We have completed 120 years—what next? Change is important, but we also have to be careful.

With a brand like Bata, we need to be evolutionary, not too revolutionary. It’s easy to lose customers but hard to win them back,” he adds. Thomas started working with the company when he was 24. He cut his teeth on the shoe business in Rimini, on the east coast of Italy, where Bata manufactured its shoes. Soon, he headed to IMD, the business school in Lausanne. This was followed by a short stint at a textile factory in Holland, before he moved to Switzerland to learn the retail aspect of the family business. He learnt the ropes from his father, Thomas J. Bata, who was active till his death at the age of 94. “After my father retired, he carried a business card that said ‘senior shoe salesman’,” recalls Thomas, who took over the reins of the company in 1984 and became its chairman and chief executive officer in 2001.

Now the company has three cohesive business units: Bata Europe, based in Italy; Bata Emerging Market (Asia, Pacific, Africa and Latin America), based in Singapore, and Bata Protective (worldwide B2B operations), based in the Netherlands. "After graduating from college in Toronto, Canada, Thomas got a ticket—a present from his father—for South America. He travelled first to Argentina because it was the farthest from any Bata factory. “It was the time of Che Guevara, long hair, long beard. I also grew a long beard and went around on motorbikes. Those days, we needed permits to enter Bolivia. Without one, they’d think that we were terrorists. But given their record, they’d shoot first and ask afterwards,” he says with a loud laugh." - Today the company serves over one million customers daily through its 4,500 stores and thousands of dealers in more than 70 countries. Its products vary. “There is a need to stay close to the local markets and develop regional brands,” he says.

When Thomas launched the Marie Claire range of shoes for Bata, he created a sophisticated, comfortable yet chic collection for women. “Well, it was inspired by the cool French vibe, there was the magazine at the time, and I thought the collection would mirror that elegance,” he says. When there was a “slight tremor of discord” in taking the name of the French women’s magazine, he says he took the owner out to lunch and ironed out the legal issues. Bata’s India-specific brands include Sandak, Sparx, Scholl, Mocassino, Ambassador, Bata Comfit and Eva-lite. Incidentally, Bata India was the first to patent the “Ballerina shoe” in the country; it has gone on to become a staple of many wardrobes and is said to be one of the most duplicated accessories. As important as India is to Bata (it accounts for 20% of its global business), Bata has been important to Indians—particularly to an entire generation of children who grew up wearing its shoes through school and think it’s a home-grown brand. Most are surprised to learn that it is not. Bata, which has been operating in India for eight decades, sells over 45 million pairs of footwear every year, serving over 120,000 customers almost every day in the country.

A majority of the Bata shoes sold in India are manufactured at the company’s five production units (Batanagar in West Bengal; Bataganj in Bihar; Bata Shatak in Hosur in Tamil Nadu; Faridabad in Haryana; and Peenya in Karnataka). Over the last decade, India’s burgeoning appetite for luxury has been whetted by the global luxury brands that have set up shop here. Bata’s India products too underwent a complete overhaul, with collections becoming trendier. Thomas has ensured the introduction of a range of accessories and small leather goods. He was determined to make a mark as a brand that offers something for everyone. “We had huge stores and we couldn’t dress up a window with just shoes,” he says. In 2013, Bata India recorded a turnover of Rs.2,098 crore, and is aiming to touch $1 billion (around Rs.6,000 crore) in annual revenue over the next three-four years. To celebrate its 120th anniversary this year, the company released a special edition, a relaunch, of the Bata Tennis shoe first introduced in 1936. For the millions of Indian schoolchildren who grew up wearing this unique, elongated pinstriped sneaker with the distinctive rubber toe guard for physical education classes—the company was the first to manufacture rubber and canvas shoes in India—it’s the stuff of nostalgia.

Thomas’ India-based nephew Charles Pignal, working on plans to showcase a cool new, hipster-ish avatar, spent months fine-tuning the vintage Tennis shoe at the company’s Batanagar facility. He has collaborated with Rei Kawakubo, the avant-garde Japanese designer of Comme des Garçons (CDG), to create a polka-dot version. The shoes, with two variations of black polka dots, retail for $120—and are available at CDG flagships worldwide, Dover Street Market locations, and Colette in Paris. “The Bata India stamp is at the back of the shoe,” says Thomas proudly. His daughter, Charlotte, is a style blogger (www.project who cleverly pairs luxury and fast fashion with Bata shoes on her blogs, while his son Thomas Archer Bata takes care of the Bata operations in Chile, one of the company’s larger markets. Today, the company’s biggest challenge is to attract the 15-25 demographic, the generation that suffers from a problem of plenty.

This year, it has launched Footin, a collection rich in style and easy on the wallet. “We have to stay relevant to the times, make full use of the Internet opening up so many avenues,” says Thomas. There are several India-specific plans too: to strengthen the company’s e-commerce website and digitize the Indian customer’s retail experience; open 100 stores every year; set up larger destination stores; revive the Power brand (with the latest athletic styles and, in a first, especially designed cricket shoes); and collaborate with young designers—as they did with designer Malini Ramani in 2011, to create a trendy signature style. The chairman believes that the ideal Bata customer is someone like him: a globetrotter with a keen eye for comfort. Thomas himself wears Bata most of the time—he prefers Bata Lite, manufactured in Europe, which he describes as an amazing travel accessory that you don’t need to remove at airport security. What shoes would he buy for his wife? I ask. “Well, she has unlimited access to all the Bata shoes,” he says. “But she goes into the store, buys everything, and doesn’t even use the discount coupon,” he adds as an afterthought.

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