A legend of Czech industrial history, the Bata shoe empire, returned Friday after a 47-year exile and opened a six-story department store on Prague's downtown Wenceslas Square.
The empire was founded in the 1930s by Tomas Bata Sr., who earned the nickname "the Czech Henry Ford" for his American-inspired business practices. These included assembly lines, aggressive sales marketing and a social security plan for workers unparalleled in much of Western Europe.Bata's shoe factories were nationalized by Czechoslovakia's postwar communist leaders in October 1945, and the family fled to Canada.
There, the Bata Shoe Organization grew into one of world's largest shoe producers and vendors, selling 300 million pairs of shoes annually. It employs more than 70,000 people in 65 countries.
Bata's son, Tomas Bata Jr., received a hero's welcome in Prague when he returned from Canada in 1989 after the ouster of Czechoslovakia's communist rulers. He was among the participants at Friday's ceremonial opening of the Bata shoe store.
"I can see capitalism is back," said Josef Jarolim, 75, who stood in a crowd of 2,000 onlookers and recalled the days when Bata was the trademark of Czech skill and entrepreneurship.
Contacts between Czech businessmen and Bata began in 1988, and a joint venture was formed in 1991. Bata's Dutch branch owns 70 percent of the new company, and two Czech companies split the remaining 30 percent.
The Prague store is to employ 110 sales people and is one of Bata's largest worldwide. It expects to sell 175,000 pairs of shoes this year.
The Bata parent company has pledged to invest $10 million over five years.