Updated: May 27, 2020
I have been looking forward to writing about Peñaflor, as having served as Company Manager of Bata Chile from 2012-2015, I had both the unenviable experience of being there while the last machine was turned off, as well as the opportunity to meet many people that had grown up in the factory community and proudly called themselves "Batinos". During one of my wanders around the cavernous factory buildings, which had been partially damaged during the 2010 earthquake, I stumbled upon a room filled to the brim with boxes full of old photographs and plans. Amongst these were the original plans for "Bataflor" from the 1930s, written totally in Czech as well as a copy of a fantastic book which outlined exactly how to build an industrial Bata city. Both items are safely now located in the Bata Maipu office. The story of the factory in Penaflor and the odds that its early management fought against are remarkable.
The factory was built and completed right at the outbreak of World War II. At this point Czechoslovakia was already entirely occupied by invading Nazi forces. Isolated and distant from the conflict that engulfed Europe, Jaromir Přidal and his team of recently arrived Czechoslovaks got to work putting the plans they had been dreaming up on the trip over into action. Jaromir was only 25 when he arrived in Chile, and with little news from Europe, not knowing if he would ever see his homeland again, set off to work. With incredible efficiency the factory was completed in just shy of three months and the first shoes rolled off the conveyor on August 29th 1939, 3 days before Hitler's invasion of Poland. This is made all the more remarkable by the fact that the building style used in Penaflor (they look straight out of Central Europe) was very uncommon in Chile at the time (and luckily it turns out very effective against Earthquakes).
What Jaromir and his team pulled off, cannot be understated. With very little money, a basic knowledge of Spanish and no insider knowledge of the country, he quickly established Bata as an important player in the local footwear industry. The factory would have over 300 workers by 1943, the same year in which, modeled on the Bata school he had attended in Zlin, he established the "colegio industrial Bata", dedicated to turning youngsters into responsible shoemakers. People from all walks of life, that were willing to work hard and learn, would join this community. Many came from the countryside and what Bata offered, similarly to Zlin in years past, was a way to "make it" in life. The Czechs would earn a reputation for fairness and hard work, which would come to be admired by the Chilean Bata employees. Although, they would occasionally poke fun at their Spanish by calling them "Platanos" (bananas), as they would often say "plata no" (there is no money).
The Bata company would know good times for the next few decades, peaking with over 2,500 employees at the Penaflor plant in the 1960s and eventually the establishment of another large factory in nearby Melipilla. The Chilean economy remained relatively closed to the import of footwear from low cost countries and Bata was able to fully capitalize on this. They would continue to produce iconic shoes worn by a large percentage of Chileans. Northstar, Tigre, Power would all become household names and come to dominate the market.
"Se portan bien, cuando las tratan mal". Power as a sponsor of the national soccer team.
In addition to production, there was another passion that "Batinos" in Penaflor held dear: sports. The sports club would become so ingrained in the essence of the community that at various points the best teams in many disciplines in the country came from the Thomas Bata club in Penaflor. This included a basketball team that were South American champions in 1967 and a basketball stadium worthy of any visitor. A member of this the team, pictured below, Juan Lichnowsky, would become a succesful Bata manager for decades. The sports club remains an important part of the heritage to this day.
Liberalization of the economy from the late 70s onwards finally slowed down production, and eventually the manufacturing of most products was shifted to Asia allowing the Bata retail business to compete as the local made products were no longer competitive. Much of the land around the Bata estate was sold off and developed. The factory compound would carry on producing Industrial shoes, many of which were iconic in their own respect, including firefighting and military boots until the last boot was made in 2012, with Adan Krippel, grandson of one of Pridal's founding colleagues and a third generation "batino" as factory manager, watching on. The compound also hosted Bata Industrials offices and the Shoe Innovation Center Latam until 2014, when these centers were also moved.
Today Penaflor is a suburban dormitory town, easily accessible from Santiago thanks to a new highway. The Bata property still houses a warehouse for wholesale distribution, but the facilities are in need of new life. Sports still takes place on the premises, with the soccer and hockey facilities used by the community. The site is near the city center and ideally located to develop once again into an area of community energy and importance. This amazing place has shaped an entire city and still lives on fondly in the memories of Chileans. There is not a person in Penaflor that doesn't have some link to Bata. As in many Bata towns that have reinvented themselves, I believe in Penaflor - it is just a matter of time...