Join Bata and see the World, but if the world is in political turmoil as it was in 1963-4, what do you do with an advertising and marketing man who has been hired from Glasgow, Scotland put through the Bata Overseas induction course and destined to take over Batas marketing at Gwelo in Rhodesia?
Rhodesia Leader Ian Smith had imposed a unilateral declaration of independence, the UK had countered with sanctions and Julian Bray (that’s me!) found myself, being seconded to the British Bata Shoe Company whilst my sponsors Bata Development Limited (BDL) – the international training and staff placement arm – above the then 151 Oxford Street Bata Store (now Boots the Chemist) whilst they found another country to take me.
During this time BDL had put me up at the swanky Berners Street Hotel, just off Londson's Oxford Street. For a young man, fancy free, absolute bliss and just a stones throw from Soho and all Londons top Jazz and Rock Clubs. Some 44 years ago, as veteran rocker Zoot Money (his rock’n’roll band is still touring with Alan Price) himself reminded me .. Part of my stay would be at the UK Factory Estate. This didn’t really prepare me for East Tilbury, first reaction: What is this! Everywhere you looked, wall to wall Bata! These days slick marketing men would call it branding. Bata in the early 60’s was light years ahead, it had been imported lock, stock and Skoda Fire Engine in the 1930’s from Czechoslovakia, the city of Zlin to be precise just before the Iron Curtain descended, leaving a little bit of Czechoslovakia in…East Tilbury …
The Bata farm, Bata Milkman and Bata milk bottles even, Bata Fire Service – superb Skoda Fire Engine, Bata Technical College, Bata Ambulance Station (The old American pre-war Chevvy saloon car converted into an ambulance for the factory. Still in use when I was at East Tilbury, is now on permanent display at the War Museums Duxford Aerodrome Museum), Bata Club & Bar (!), Bata Shoe Shop (of course), Bata Supermarket, Bata Bakery, Thomas Bata Statue and the Bata Hotel (now called Stanford House).
My home for the next few months. My bedroom, huge square plate glass wall type window overlooking the Thames Estuary and the distant gas flare from the oil terminal. You could see over the mud flats and watch the birdlife, tankers and shipping sailing by. Amazing sunsets too.
Pirate radio had just started, “My feet begin to crumble…” wafting out of the radio - the Beatles had yet to peak. Electrical sockets and plumbing in the Bata Hotel bedroom were of a unique Zlin design as was everything else. The entire construction had been imported from Zlin, even the round butter pats at breakfast had the Bata logo stamped on them, until the machine (again Zlin built) broke down and no further parts could be imported – funny what you do remember…just as you remember the ’knocker upper’ early in the morning a distant rumble would get louder and louder, as a man with a big padded stick would bang on all the bedroom doors, no one slept in at the Bata Hotel!
The offer was simple, rather than have me attending and repeating numerous BDL retail and manufacturing training courses, (I had after all just about completed the entire catalogue of Bata International training courses for visiting overseas Batamen, rewritten many of the training manuals) they would take home to their own countries. I had by my unexpected extended stay pushed the international induction system to the full.
I was also more than ready for a change in the routine and I was therefore to assist my hosts at the British Bata plant to launch a series of Kelvin Shoe Shops up and down the country: Ebbew Vale, Mottingham, Stoke -on- Trent, Tunstall, Birmingham, Seven Kings, Mill Hill, the list seemed to be endless.
At the same time, spend some time as an observer in the various departments at the East Tilbury factory, to get practical hands on experience of all the processes, as everyone would be in at the deep end in Africa! Where you start with a plastics plant, stamp out flip flops, buy hides and skins and work the business upwards…
Needless to say, time spent on the mighty hydraulic foot operated clicking press,a fearsome machine to stamp or ‘click’ out leather shoe components from beautifully cured and dressed skins, was short and swift as the departmental head saw his months profits being decimated by an enthusiastic but serially useless clicker, only able to get a few cut pieces out of a hide, but generate lots of useless waste material!
Same went for the graceful and somewhat hypnotic Ford car production line inspired Wellington boot line, did at least 10 minutes on that one before being honourably discharged!
However discovered the trick of using a thumb to press and fold the shaft of the boot to tuck one inside the other, been very useful ever since! Did manage to get my head around the sock production line door and the metal shop - making shoe box racks. Finally, shop fittings and furniture were graced with my visits. Bata in those days worked on the basis of being completely self-contained and produced all the shop fittings and fixtures for its then extensive network of shoe shops.
Bata Development Limited (BDL) paid for my salary, board and lodging and all out of pocket expenses. I literally signed for everything. I was later to find out that BDL re-charged me to several overseas Bata companies and at one time BDL were being paid three times over for my services. Truly a profit centre!
Mr Tusa, the factory boss, (his son is John Tusa, later to run the BBC and the Barbican) fearing that his then profitable and precision run (strictly to the original Zlin Czechoslovakian model) organisation would be plunged into financial ruin if Julian Bray was let anyway near the hallowed manufacturing process, swiftly arranged that I was introduced to a delightfully rotund ex-military gentleman a Mr Donithorne, his pride and joy being a series of dummy window displays inside the factory (i.e. no glass in the windows!) where the next seasons window themes were tried out and the windows dressed. I think his long suffering but ever cheerful number two was a gentleman by the name of Charlie Harsant, one of them however had a very large 1950’s gas guzzler of a motor car ideally suited to cramming in extra stock and display fittings. The task? The complete roll out 60 or so retail shops all over the UK in just a few months.
These dummy displays would all be put into a series of photographs and the original dressing windows by numbers kit evolved for shop mangers up and down the country. I seem to remember, the actual time allowed to dress the window was helpfully added. Few people ever cottoned on to the fact that it is far easier and quicker to dress a window from the front without glass, than it is to dress it from behind a plate glass barrier and work backwards…
As it happened British Bata had decided that many of the older Bata shop units up and down the country, many on short or near end of term full repairing leases, with interiors dating back to the early 40’s – all units, furniture and even clocks still bearing a’Made in Zlin’ label, needed a new lease of life, the units were totally stripped out, Marley floor tiles laid, walls and ceilings painted white. Stark white neon tubes ran the length of the ceiling and a Blue on white background KELVIN SHOES illuminated fascia hoisted over the entrance. Job done.
The opening programme was ambitious a new store opened every week for what seemed to be six months, in every unlikely backwater of England and Wales. All the new fittings from Shoe box racks, Chairs, furniture, sock dump bins arrived in a large removal van on the Monday. It all had to be installed ready to receive the shoe stock inventory on Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday, dress the windows, interior displays, millions of balloons to be blown up. Paste up the billboards and A board pavement posters, Friday set up loudspeakers, a microphone, loud music (Oh yes!) and Saturday the Grand Opening. Being the most talkative I was give the microphone and fairground barking role enticing customers into the brand new shop.
The big deal? Free East Tilbury produced socks and or tights with every purchase! In later years that early Bata experience paid off as I was later to join both the BBC and IRN as a broadcast journalist. The original intention was to provide a cheap secondary chain of shoe shops in low income areas. The Kelvin Shoe experience unwittingly hit a chord and revenues from these twilight shops exceeded all expectations. It also left the incoming manager with a headache; as the opening week takings would act as a target for subsequent weeks, by which time we had moved on, taking the Kelvin Shoe Opening Experience Bandwagon with us.
These were great buccaneering times, Bata worldwide (some 80 countries) it has to be said was in the 1960’s, light years ahead in terms of retail marketing and shoe manufacturing, the Kelvin Shoes roll out was not only a feat of human endurance but a clear demonstration of how all departments came together to produce this unlikely success.
As a postscript BDL did find me a home with the Uganda Bata Shoe Company in Kampala, Uganda as the old East Africa Bata Shoe Co covering Kenya, Uganda and W Tanzania was to be broken up. Uganda was newly independent and the President Milton Obote (who died in exile) was later to thank me on behalf of the work Bata was doing around the country (so many similarities to the Kelvin Shoe roll out…funny that).
The delay also resulted in me finding a bride in Leigh on Sea,but later dissolved when we returned to the UK she was to work in Kampala as secretary to the British High Commissioner Rex Hunt, he later to find fame as our man in the Falklands, on his death, my Letter published in the London Times with Rex Hunts obituary, recalled how we watched England win the 1966 World Cup in black and white, on a small 14 inch television at the British High Commission. I had persuaded Uganda Televsion to clear national TV programming for a day and loop the match, a video tape rushed by diplomatic courier along with a keg of Watneys Red Barrel ( Hmmmm) . I also suggested that the newly released Booker T's Green Onions would make an ideal UTV News Ident (!) James Bwogi, head of UTV agreed, it ran for a year or more, Poor old James was later to be brutally murdered by Idi Amin.
We flew out to Uganda, Entebbe on an East African Airways Comet 4-c, stopping for fuel at Benghazi, and a warm bottle of Coca Cola, until finally arriving fifteen hours later in Entebbe, Uganda. A beautiful country blissfully unaware of the gathering storm clouds that would be unleashed on that gentle land just six years later.
Today there is little evidence of Bata in the UK, but my pioneering work in Africa lives on as it does in Europe. I spent a couple of happy years in Kampala, Uganda and by fortune my contract finished just as the independence honeymoon of the former British colony started to wane and little did anyone know the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin Dada would turn the whole region on its head, destroying everything in its wake. The Uganda Asian population would be expelled to the UK and if that wasn’t enough AIDS would ravage that already war torn country some ten years later.
I boarded the East African Railways train in Kampala for the majestic two days and night journey through the Rift Valley and countless game reserves to Mombasa on the Kenyan coast. I was on my way home, knowing even then the last physical embodiment of colonial rule was enshrined in the impeccable silver service offered on board the train. My idyllic Ugandan experience would never be repeated and those who took my place would not enjoy it either as the political storm clouds gathered.
Julian Bray MCIPR NUJ
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