The company sells about 20 million pairs of shoes annually in Kenya.
A walk down any major street in Nairobi and one is treated to a window shopping experience as they stare at sexy new brand shoes behind walls of glasses inside strategically located Bata stores.
What more, for decades, Kenyan schools especially high school used to and continue to run on Toughees Black Agrifoglio Shoes.
Business Insider SSA recently had a chat with Bata Chief Marketing Officer who is also the fourth generation Bata family member, Mr. Thomas Archer who is in the country for the second time after 15 years, to learn more about the 125-year-old company and how it left its shoeprints on the country’s footwear culture, still visible to date.
BISSA: So how does it feel to come from a long lineage of shoemakers, how is it weighing on your young shoulders?
Mr. Archer: On one hand it is amazing and on the other hand it is terrifying, it is a bit of both so it depends on which day you ask me (laughs) No it is wonderful I think we have an amazing legacy and heritage and I have a lot of admirations of the people who have come before me and especially as I get older I get increasing understanding of what they have been through and you know family business is not easy, they are very complicated entities.
BISSA: When you come from such a family with a rich history, it is easy to get lost, what is your own vision of the company and how will you like to be remembered?
Mr. Archer: You know this is a 125-year-old brand and it keeps evolving because the market keeps evolving so my challenge and vision is to give the brand a little bit of youth, make it a little bit more aspirational for the younger consumers because one thing I hate to hear and I hear it too often, unfortunately, is oh! I used to wear Bata school shoes or my mum buys Bata shoes and although I am very happy that they wore Bata school shoes what I would love to hear is oh! I went into Bata store and I bought this amazing shoes so my objective is to deliver products that people want today.
BISSA: Speaking about school shoes, for decades, Kenyan schools especially high schools used to and continue to run on Toughees Black Agrifoglio Shoes, it took off and spread like wildfire, how did you create such a popular brand?
Mr. Archer: Toughees is a school shoe right! it is say the most basic product that everybody needs to buy, I don’t want to say commodity because we want to do the opposite of that but it is to an extent a commodity so for us the challenge is to innovate on the product to make it even more popular, you know add new features, increase comfort, increase durability, waterproofness , just keep innovating because people want new things, they want to be surprised and that they know their shilling is going a little bit further this year than last year.
BISSA: How much did it cost you to produce say a pair of Toughees shoes?
Mr. Archer: Toughees shoes final retail price could be somewhere like Sh1000, the manufacturing cost including design, labour and everything would be anywhere between 50 – 60% of that cost.
BISSA: Bata recently launched a global campaign called “Me & Comfortable with It” what is all about?
Mr. Archer: One of the biggest items in the world today is empowering women and that item is really important to our brand and also fits well with our social legacy and so we developed the concept to celebrate the fact that you could be comfortable with yourself and also literarily in your shoes right! because bata shoes are comfortable and so we just want every woman to wake up every morning and be proud of who they are and do what they love.
BISSA: In April this year BATA unveiled its latest collection dubbed Bata Red Label – the ultimate red to have” can you please unwrap it for us?
Mr. Archer: Oh yeah it just came out recently, you know the red label was born out of an idea that traditionally we change the collections a lot by market, based on the needs of the market but since today you have instant communications consumers whether they are in Canada, Kenya, Japan or wherever they are they have the same information and want the latest shoes, we decided to create a collection that is up to date and is same in every part of the world.
BISSA: Your visit to Kenya comes just weeks after the conclusion of 2nd BATA Fashion Weekend held in Milan Italy where some lucky few Kenyans also attended, how did it go?
Mr. Archer: It went really well, we had some guests from Kenya which was great, we had Sylvia Njoki and Lorna Kiplagat and some other guys and it was fantastic. Why we did it in the first place is because we wanted in a modern way to talk about all the changes going on in the brand and we thought doing something predictable like everyone else in the market that won’t work, it will just be noise and so we said why not make our own Fashion week, who else has a fashion week? So the first year we did in Prague and it was great we learned a lot and this year it was held in Milan, we had a globalized stream which was watched by millions, we had tonnes of participatory events and people really had fun, the expression that I got from the people was like wow! This is Bata like a genuine surprise but in a good way and that is we what, unforgettable experience
BISSA: How important is Bata Kenya and the African market to your global vision and strategy?
Mr. Archer: Kenya and Africa, in general, is still relatively a small percentage of our business, you know the whole region is still under ten percent of our business today but it is growing very quickly and you know we really believe the future of the Kenyan market is very bright because we are seeing I would say finally an emergence of middle class, you know who are hungry for better products, in the last five years that transition has been very noticeable in the products that we are selling. A product like the red label five years ago won’t probably have sold and today we are sold out of stock, we don’t have any left (laughs).
BISSA: How is the business environment in Kenya and Africa in general for Bata like so far?
Mr. Archer: I think as long as there are no bad surprises you know on the macroeconomics and political front it is extremely positive, if I look at the Kenyan market last year was a little bit shaky because of the political issues but this year it is booming and I just think it is a matter of keeping business as usual, keep things developing and if things can stay calm and predictable then we foresee business booming.
BISSA: The consumer trend nowadays is custom made products compared to mass production products, is there a way Bata can say partner with local Kenyan designers to custom-made shoes for your global market?
Mr. Archer: Absolutely! I believe a lot in local creativity and we do as a company as well, a lot of our shoes are actually designed in Kenya and I hope some of the new ranges we are developing can even have global appeal and I think some of them can because I saw a lot of great stuff going on there so the answer is yes absolutely, which format it will take or product kind it is yet to be seen but I think there is great potential here and in the not so distant future we can see Kenyan designs going global.
BISSA: Where do you see Bata as a brand and as a company say in the next 5 years?
Mr. Archer: I see us as innovating a lot, I believe in the shoe business and in any kind of business you can be either one of two things, commodity or innovator. We need to move increasingly in the innovators' block and that means new technologies, new way of selling, new ways of doing marketing so I am pushing all our employees and all of our positions you know to do it differently, just because it worked yesterday doesn’t mean it will work tomorrow, let’s try! The great thing about being direct to customer business like we are s you can try something, doesn’t work you can try something different, stagnation kills companies and this is what we need to do.
BISSA: In some parts of the world there are people who still cannot afford shoes, what is Bata doing to solve this issue and make shoes affordable for everyone?
Mr. Archer: We have collections which are very very affordable, prices under Sh100 which are meant for the mass market and people who cannot necessarily afford to buy more expensive shoes and those are sold basically slightly above what they cost to make, they are very low margin products but we sell a lot of them and our factory here in Kenya makes lots of them as do other factories in other countries in the region so we definitely see that as an asset to our business and part of our mission.
BISSA: Let me ask you a philosophical question, apart from wearing shoes to obviously protect our feet and soles, why do humans need shoes and women can’t get enough of shoes?
Mr. Archer: That is a great question; I think you know in most parts of the world today and even here in Kenya consumers no longer buy shoes because they need to wear them for survival, they wear them because they want and they choose designs they like. So, of course, you have the functional reason which is to protect your feet but I think it is because they can also express themselves with their footwear. Secondly why does the average middle class woman today have twenty pairs of shoes, it is not out of need but out of want and desire, I will tell you a funny anecdote I heard of why women like shoes so much it is one thing that never changes size during their lives (laughs) because clothing changes depending on how many extra pounds you add or reduce, depressing right! But for shoes, you are always a size 9.
BISSA: Speaking of shoe sizes, what number do you wear?
Mr. Archer: I am a British size 10
BISSA: Keeping in mind you come from a family which owns and makes shoes how many pairs of shoes do you have?
Mr. Archer: I have a lot of shoes, over 200 pairs of shoes. I am not a born shoeaholic though I am more of a shoe collector, when you are in the shoe business you know you are trying shoes all the time, every time I see a shoe I find interesting whoever made it I will buy it because I want to see how is it, how it feels to wear them so it is more than the show of it but the need to collect and look at them, it is necessary when you have a passion for something to also understand it.
BISSA: What is the most expensive and cheapest pair of shoes you have ever bought?
Mr. Archer: I bought a pair of dress shoes for about $150 and the cheapest item is my Sh99 patapata flip-flops ($1).
BISSA: You have a master’s degree in political science that is a bit far off from shoemaking how does it help or connects you to shoes?
Mr. Archer: I grew up in the shoe business, my childhood holidays were spent in a shoe factory so I have always been around the business and understood the business and I just wanted to do something completely different. I found general philosophy in politics extremely interesting, you know it is an interesting area and it helps you in many ways just understand everything you know which then helps you with business and life in general, the way you live it so that is pretty much why I choose it.
BISSA: Given a chance to gift three people a pair of shoes who would you choose and why?
Mr. Archer: Elon Musk, Barrack Obama and Drake, Elon because he is pushing the barriers always, he doesn’t care if he succeeds or fails he just keeps on pushing the barriers, Obama because he has such a great vision of how the world should be and very committed to it, unfortunately, he is no longer the president of the United States but I think he is an amazing guy, lastly Drake because I would like to be Drake someday as well, he is Canadian like me and I think he is a great guy.
BISSA: So when you are not working or skiing, what do you do for fun?
Mr. Archer: I have a big passion for music, I play the guitar myself and I love going to concerts, my favourite artist for all time is the Cure and the Smiffs, those are like my kind of traditional favorites the ones that never grow old but I also love Drake and I think he is amazing. I also love traveling and I am very passionate about entrepreneurship and I am involved in a few entrepreneurship programs for young people like the junior achievement.
Mr. Archer: My last words are come visit our stores (laughs) I think you will really be surprised how our brand is changing and I think although we are a global brand we are very much of like a Kenyan soul