Before Sonja Wettstein was permitted to marry Thomas J. Bata, her mother insisted that she attend a special school where she would learn to make soufflés, choose the right polish for parquet floors and stretch freshly laundered curtains back into shape. To be a wife, she must learn something about housekeeping, her mother had declared with some alarm.
She obeyed her mother's wishes – she was only a teenager, after all – but Sonja Bata, who died on Tuesday at the age of 91 in Toronto, never had any intention of limiting herself to soufflés, children and curtains. An officer of the Order of Canada and recipient of many awards for her business and charitable work, Mrs. Bata defied the expectations of her generation. She became a formidable matriarch and a leading force of the Bata shoe business as she and her husband expanded into more than 70 countries and grew revenue to over $3-billion annually. In 1995, she founded the Bata Shoe Museum, unique in the world with its emphasis on ethnological collections.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland, on Nov. 8, 1926, Sonja Wettstein grew up in a privileged and cultured milieu. Her father was a highly respected lawyer. She had been studying to become an architect but never finished her degree as she contracted tuberculosis and was forced to retreat to a sanatorium in the mountains where she could recover.
She had known her future husband for nearly 16 years, as her father advised the family about their shoe business. But when Mr. Bata saw her in a ski chalet in St. Moritz, Switzerland, in 1946, standing in the doorway as he picked out some skis and boots to borrow, he was "swept off his feet," he wrote in his 1990 autobiography Bata: Shoemaker to the World. She was 19; he was 31. She was Protestant; he was Catholic. She had several suitors. But this "Czech shoemaker" as she referred to him, fascinated her. "Tom was different … somebody I respected and I admired," she explained. Shortly after, he proposed to her while they were flying over the Swiss alps.
Mr. Bata was consumed with the responsibility of carrying on the business his late father had founded on the principle of social capitalism. Already a substantial enterprise making about 36 million pairs of shoes a year, it was to be run "not as a source of personal profit, but rather as a public trust," according to his father's instructions. To this day, the company invests in local communities with factories, schools, recreational centres and training.
With Europe teetering on the brink of war in 1938, he decided to move the family business headquarters to Canada ahead of the German invasion of his homeland. Later, the family enterprise in Czechoslovakia was nationalized under the Communist regime.
The life he introduced to his new, young bride was far from what she knew or perhaps expected. She found herself in Frankford, Ont., a small village east of Toronto, where members of 100 Czech families who had followed Mr. Bata were living and working in the shoe factory. "It was quite amazing, when you think about it, but she had the strength of character and the desire to do things," commented her eldest daughter, Christine Schmidt, a director of Bata and vice-chairman of the Bata Shoe Museum.
"Her English wasn't even that good. The first thing she did was get involved with the Girl Guides. And that is an example of what she was like. Her father was a big influence with high ethical and moral views. He pushed her to feel she had a big responsibility in the world. Those same principles are what attracted her to my father."
Her husband knew he hadn't married a traditional housewife.
"It was clear to both of us that she wasn't cut out to be a housewife in a small Ontario village," he wrote in his autobiography.
Soon, she began touring Bata factories. She took courses in shoe design, pattern-cutting and materials. She took on the running of a Bata store to learn about retail and management. She was young and opinionated, filled with what her husband described as "generations of Swiss probity in her veins" and "an abhorrence of mediocrity."
Many of the Batamen – because they were mostly male managers – resented the influence of the boss's wife, Mr. Bata wrote. She didn't want an official position. She was simply a consultant.
Before long, however, she won over her detractors with her uncanny intuition for fashion and innovative ideas for the business. At the end of the Second World War, she noticed a shift in women's shoe fashion from the functional round-toed shoes to pointy-toed ones long before their competitors did. Travelling with her husband to the company's factories around the world, she was deeply involved in marketing and product development.
Mrs. Bata searched for local materials when a country didn't have foreign exchange to import the desired hides or textiles, and she studied what people wore, finding innovative product features that could be incorporated into Bata designs.
In an impressive and modernist innovation for the time, she designed and developed a standard Bata store – from carpeting to furniture and shelving brackets – all based on a module system that could be delivered on a truck and assembled in just over an hour.
She was motivated by the ethical principles of the company: "I wouldn't call it missionary work but it was absolutely fascinating work to get these people involved in the manufacturing process," she once said of the local population in developing countries.
"Her most remarkable quality to me was the constancy of her values and her loyalties," says Thomas Symons, the founding president of Trent University, who knew Mrs. Bata and her husband "over a lifetime."
Prof. Symons, a former chairman of Bata, founding member of the Bata Shoe Museum and a board member of the family trust, describes her as having possessed "a profound wisdom – innate and acquired. She was of immense assistance to her husband in his worldwide shoe enterprise." Mr. Bata died in 2008 at the age of 93. They had been married for 63 years.
They would compare notes over breakfast and dinner and often went at each other "hammer and tongs," according to Mr. Bata, about shoe styles, factory design or personnel policy, but work disagreements never affected their personal relationship, he noted.
"It was an extraordinary partnership," Ms. Schmidt says. "They were inseparable." Together, they created a company town called Batawa – a play on the family name and Ottawa – with schools and housing and even a corporate ski hill.
In the first 14 years of their marriage, they had four children, Tom Jr., Christine, Monica and Rosemarie.
But having a family didn't slow down their business ambitions. The children were often left in the care of their Scottish nanny or sent off to boarding schools.
"To say that as children we didn't often miss having a more traditional mother would be wrong," Ms. Schmidt says. "You would go to a friend's house for Thanksgiving and there would be her mother cooking in the kitchen."
But the Batas had their own memorable traditions. They celebrated on Christmas Eve, when Santa Claus would bring presents and set up the tree in the living room. The children were on their best behaviour during dinner, wriggling with excitement as they heard noises and bells tinkling from the other room. Finally, their parents would open the doors to reveal a huge tree lit with candles and sparklers.
"It was so magical," Ms. Schmidt recalls. In the summers, another tradition was exploring the Great Lakes in a boat.
The children were brought up on strict budgets. After university, they were expected to make their own way and not return to live at home.
"It was drummed into us to support yourself, to be smart, to work hard, to be self-reliant. We never expected to be supported or given money," Ms. Schmidt says. While at university, she had a budget – "ample but not overly generous" – and had to submit expenses to the company accountant at the end of the school year. "We had to finish the year debt-free."
In addition to her work for the family business, Mrs. Bata became involved in a variety of charitable causes. She was a founder of the Toronto French School; supported Trent University; and served as chairman of the National Design Council, the World Wildlife Fund Canada and the Governor's Council of North York General Hospital, among others. In the early nineties, she began working on the Bata Shoe Museum, which would be her greatest accomplishment, according to many people. It required extensive negotiations with the city and was completely self-funded.
"Some people buy yachts or Rolls-Royces. But my husband and I couldn't care less about that," Mrs. Bata told the Toronto Star in 1995, the year the Bata Shoe Museum opened in Toronto. "Shoes are the most exciting artifact. They tell you more about human beings, the way they lived, their climates and their history." The building, designed by architect Raymond Moriyama, houses her collection of more than 13,000 pairs of shoes, amassed during her travels. Among the treasures are 4,500-year-old Egyptian wooden sandals; Inuit beaded slippers; 16th-century chopines, wooden platforms covered in silk velvet and lace; black satin boots belonging to Queen Victoria; Shaquille O'Neal's Size 23 basketball shoes; and Elton John's boots.
Bata remains a private global firm, employing approximately 30,000 people and operating 24 production facilities and 5,000 international retail stores with annual revenue of over US$2-billion, according to Ms. Schmidt.
The company website notes that Bata "has a presence" in more than 70 countries and markets 400 million pairs of shoes annually. But its business in Canada has wound down due to competition. In the eighties, Bata had approximately 250 stories across Canada. In the early 2000s, the 122-year-old company moved its headquarters to Lausanne, Switzerland. By 2009, the town of Batawa came to a standstill as all Bata manufacturing disappeared.
But that gave Mrs. Bata, an indefatigable optimist, an idea. She bought the company's shoe factory in Batawa with a vision to develop condominiums, retail stores and a business centre. Age 82 at the time, she was asked why she didn't want to relax. "Why should I?" she shot back. "I am full of ideas."
In recent years, she would attend meetings at the Bata Shoe Museum, where she remained founding chair. Always beautifully dressed in designer clothes, trim and coiffed with her hair a dark brown, she was determined to see through her development project in Batawa, which is going ahead.
"It's what is keeping me alive," she liked to say, largely because it was her husband's legacy. She lived in a penthouse at the top of the stylish One Bedford condominium building in midtown, having moved from the large house in Toronto's Park Lane Circle after her husband died. It was filled with works of art collected over their life together.
"I always wanted to do things, not just be a glamour girl," she said in a trailer for a 2015 documentary, Shoes. She could have been a typical society wife, of course. But as with everything in her life, she had her own vision of the person she wanted to be.
In her home hangs a portrait of her by Pietro Annigoni, painted in Florence in 1963. She had arrived at his studio in a plain dress with a red coat on top and wearing elegant black leather gloves. He insisted on painting her as she was.
She looks toward the viewer, her pretty face in a shy smile, her hair in its trademark dark bob, some strands slightly out of place as if from a breeze. She looks beautiful and regal, an icon of simple elegance. She clasps her gloved hands in front of her but not in a demure fashion. Rather, she appears to be gently wringing them in anticipation. It's as if she has dreamed up some fantastic new plan, and she can't wait to tell all those who have assembled before her.
Sonja Bata leaves her children, Tom Bata Jr., Christine Schmidt, Monica Pignal and Rosemarie Bata; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.