Workers' paradise: The town built by Czech version of Henry Ford
Inspired by visits to Henry Ford's factories, Tomas Bata built the world's largest shoe plant – and a workers' paradise – in Zlin, now in the Czech Republic. Some say the values he instilled have contributed to the city's relative prosperity.
Zlin, Czech Republic
Shoes have long been at the center of life in this small city in the hills of eastern Moravia.Skip to next paragraph
It was built by a local cobbler, Tomas Bata, to serve what would become the world's largest shoe company. Tens of thousands worked directly or indirectly for Bata Shoes before World War II or for its Communist successor, Svit.
Today, much of the complex stands empty, windows broken and walls covered with graffiti. An icon of early 20th-century industrial architecture, the antiquated factory was unable to survive the loss of the Soviet market and competition from Asian producers after 1989.
But unlike many other East European industrial cities, Zlin has weathered the transition remarkably well. Streets bustle with commuters, university students, and businessmen. The Golden Apple shopping mall teems with shoppers. Hundreds of small firms and retail outfits fill nearby Bata-era civic buildings. A philharmonic hall and conference center is taking shape next to the striking new headquarters of the nine-year old Tomas Bata University, where 12,000 students now study.
Instead of becoming a Rust Belt city, Zlin is a confident, modestly prosperous university town, with an unusual concentration of small businesses. And it has become so despite its backwater location and poor transportation links.
The Henry Ford of Moravia
The reason, residents say, is the legacy of Tomas Bata and his brother Jan, who built Zlin as an industrial utopia. "The approach toward free enterprise ... managed to survive," says Zdenek Pokluda, director of district archives.
Inspired by visits to Henry Ford's River Rouge plant and the Endicott-Johnson shoe plant in 1919 and 1920, Tomas Bata built assembly line factories in his village and surrounded them with a model "garden" city.
At a time when many Czechs lacked power or running water, Bata built thousands of brick houses for workers, each with indoor plumbing, electricity, balconies, and a garden. He constructed a hospital, department stores with subsidized prices, sport facilities, parks, and the country's largest movie theater. Managers were trained in the company business school; marketers, in its film school; designers, in its art institute. Workers had free healthcare and schooling and some of the top wages in the country. Bata, who was mayor, controlled everything.
In the process he created what was, until the mid-1990s, the world's largest footwear firm, as well as one of the most famous achievements of modern architecture: a modernist city spreading out from the 16-story Bata headquarters. As Bata expanded overseas, it built "Zlins" in Canada, India, and Pakistan.