Bata Plans To Rise To New Challenge

COMMENT

May 09, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The glass-facade mid-rise on U.S. 40 in Belcamp, backed by the white water tower with the red "Bata" sign, is a symbol of adaptability and survival in the turbulent 20th century, just as its parent company weathered the winds of war in Europe and around the world.

The factory by the Bush River hides a complex of abandoned brick buildings in back, an unfulfilled plan of a paternalistic workers' community that would have been global headquarters for Bata Shoe Organization, the largest footwear company in the world.

The two-story duplex cottages of Bata Village and the old five-story Bata Hotel once housed employees on the grounds, providing a self-contained company town and a convenient walk to work.

A small sign by the empty hotel reads "Bata Land Company," the large real estate firm, developer of Riverside, whose economic impact in Harford County overshadows the shoe factory from which it sprung.

Once the county's largest employer, with 3,500 workers during the post-war peak, the Bata factory still makes boots, as it did when it opened 54 years ago. But the methods, the products and the markets have drastically changed.

About 200 people now turn out some 2 million pair of specialized work boots and protective footwear each year, most produced by expensive polymer-injection-molding machines that each do the work that once required 140 humans.

A third of the current work force, now on a short week, faces an uncertain future in July when the plant loses its 16-year contract to produce hand-made cold-weather rubber boots for the military.

It's another survival test for the local factory, but one that Joseph Tillie, president of Bata Shoe Company, expects the firm to weather with new industrial-niche footwear.

"We were almost dead a few years ago, don't forget that," said the Dutch-born Mr. Tillie, who assumed command in 1988 amid strong rumors that the plant would close.

"We were making boots like everyone else, we couldn't compete on price" with the glut of imports, he explained. "We had to change or die. But we found new markets and new products. And now you can say that we are certainly profitable."

Mr. Tillie tightened discipline on the lines, encouraged worker ideas for improvements and developed self-directed production teams. He also had to deal with the fallout from two Bata purchasing agents' being charged by the government with taking kickbacks from suppliers for the military boot.

A virtual rainbow of industrial specialty boots was the company's lifesaver.

First came the Blue Max for the poultry industry, a polymer-injected boot that resists breakdown from grease and offal and abrasive non-skid flooring in chicken plants. The orange Dielectric model is widely used in the utility industry because its seamless design insulates against electrical hazards. The white nonskid-sole boots are favorites with commercial fishermen, especially shrimp boat crews.

3# The latest success is the green HazMax for hazardous waste operations, the only boot fully certified by the National Footwear Protection Agency.

For the future, the company is developing boots adapted to the needs of red meat processing workers, oil drilling and refining industries, farmers and emergency medical technicians.

Bata is also producing special women's sizes in some models, to capture a growing market. Men's boots are commonly used by everyone in many industries, Mr. Tillie noted.

The plant soon hopes to get quality assurance certification from the International Standards Organization, a worldwide cachet that will help the company to get its foot into the door for new customers here and abroad.

Many employees have worked here for decades, some dating from the period when the plant produced 25 million pair a year of canvas, rubber and leather footwear for fashion, work and sport.

"There's a wealth of experience and skills in our people that we want to keep," says Barbara Higgins, the human resources manager, who has 33 years with Bata at Belcamp. Finding jobs for the workers who hand-assemble the 84 different parts of the cold-weather boot will be her next challenge. The Bata facility has been making boots for the military since the 1960s.

Coping with changing conditions has been a constant at Belcamp. The Bata organization in Czechoslovakia purchased 1,500 acres in Harford in 1933. As the plant and community were being built, World War II erupted in Europe and the Bata family moved to North America.

Bata's residential-industrial complex in Belcamp grew rapidly, but Thomas J. Bata chose Toronto for the headquarters of his 100 companies around the world.

After the war, Bata Shoe Company thrived into the 1960s, before falling to the competition of cheap-labor foreign footwear. The last shoes were made in 1984. Each Bata company stands on its own, so the Harford plant had to downsize and secure its own future with different products.

The Bata plant in Belcamp reminds us that Harford once had a major industrial plant with large numbers of factory workers. It also reminds us that industrial changes and global competition force American manufacturers to adapt or die.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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