Thomas J. Bata would have turned 100 last year. He was a visionary who improved the lives of hundreds of millions by putting functional affordable shoes on their feet, half a century before people started talking about “basic needs” or “social enterprise”. Our friendship was one of the best things in my life.
Last week, his spirit and values were celebrated in Kenya, a country he loved dearly. The Bata Legacy Award challenged entrepreneurs 35 and younger to identify a community need in East Africa and propose a creative, viable business solution that embraces the values that guided Bata throughout his career.
The Bata Shoe Company has a remarkable history. Tom’s father founded the company in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1894. In his words, “Half of the people in the world are barefoot and only 5 percent of mankind are properly shoed. We see how little we have done so far and how great a task is waiting for the shoemakers of the world.” His son took the reins in the mid-1940s, when much of the world was in ruins. Tom radiated energy, warmth and fostered no-nonsense common sense. To him, business was a tool Ð perhaps the main tool Ð for raising standards of living by creating jobs; educating thousands of employees and their families; and by meeting some of the population’s most basic needs.
A central aim of the organization was to expand in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. One of Tom’s favorite anecdotes was the story of two Bata salesmen who traveled to Africa. After a week, one cabled back: “Returning home, no use continuing, nobody here wears shoes.” The cable received from the second salesman read, “Opportunities unlimited, everyone barefoot.” Of course, the second salesman got a promotion. At that time, in 1946, the company estimated that only one out of every hundred people in Africa wore shoes; by 1966, that figure was one in ten. Tom often emphasized in interviews that shoes in tropical areas provide important protection against parasites and other health threats: “Why are the feet of millions of people in India and Africa, and indeed everywhere in the tropics, attacked by hookworm? Why are some of the worst sore diseases and infections carried from village to village? Because of the naked feet of people living in unsanitary conditions.” Foot and skin diseases have dropped by as much as 80 percent among those who wear sandals or shoes over a period of time.
Tom and I met in 1988 when I became Chief Economist of the World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation. We shared the conviction that business can be a major tool for improving living conditions in the developing world. Our professional conversations focused mainly on business-government relations and once in a while I would get a phone call out of the blue, and Tom would ask what I thought of such or such country’s prospects. Tom was the kindest person: he traveled from Toronto to talk to the 20-some IFC economists, and brought with him a suitcase packed with shoe samples of various kinds. When he was 90 years old he spoke forcefully about the importance of management education at a GBSN breakfast on the occasion of the World Economic Forum’s Africa Summit. The last time we spoke was when I took a snapshot of a Bata store in Mombasa in 2007 and sent it to him; he called, and asked: “was the store clean?” I assured him that it was spotless.
Like most genuinely great figures, Tom was not driven by ego. I cherish one of his business cards, which read: “Thomas J. Bata. Shoe Salesman.” I miss him dearly.
For more information, visit batalegacy.org
Congratulations to the Winners!
Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder & CEO of the Global Business School Network