It was 1967. I had been studying accountancy full time at the South East Essex Tech (now the University of East London) in Barking. However, at the end of the first year, the full time course was withdrawn and the college urged those who had passed Part 1 of the exams to find a sandwich course with a local firm to complete the remaining two years. I applied to the Bata College and was summoned for a 2 or 3 day assessment and interview. I was in a very unusual position, as, if successful, I would be starting at the Bata College at the beginning of the second year of their course.
I lived and went to school in Ilford and at the age of 19 had never lived away from home. I didn't know what to expect - all I knew was that Bata’s was near Tilbury and that didn't conjure up a particularly nice image. Imagine my surprise as the train approached East Tilbury station, seeing the factory shining out in the bright sunshine on the other side of a huge field of golden corn! It looked wonderful and I immediately felt this was where I wanted to be - I would do my utmost to get through the assessment. I cannot recall much about the assessment itself, but it did involve staying in the college, meeting and eating with the other college lads, some numerical and literacy tests, an interview with the College principal, Denis Bacon, and then a very formal interview with senior management. This final hurdle was extremely nerve-racking. There must have been eight or nine people, all dressed in dark suits, firing a series of questions at me. Their key objective would have been to decide whether I was a suitable candidate to invest in!
I got in and within two weeks I was living at the college and rooming with a great guy called Frank Whitfield, from Consett, Co Durham, also studying accountancy. He had already been at the college for a year, so he showed me the ropes and really helped me settle in quickly. I know he went on to a good position at Remploy after leaving Bata's and I often wonder what he is up to now!
The sandwich course was very well structured. We spent three months in the factory (six weeks in two different departments) and then three months at college and then back to the factory and so on for two years. During the periods at college, there was a concentrated focus on covering the complete syllabus and passing the various exams for each part every three months. Fortunately, I achieved this over the two years, completing and passing Part 5 of the ICWA exams before I was 21! Thanks to Bata's, I became one of the youngest ever qualified cost and management accountants. The three month periods in the factory were much more about obtaining a wide experience of how business works from understanding the buying process for raw materials through to selling the finished pairs of shoes in the shops and everything in between. For instance, I remember working in the leather factory on the conveyor belts on various tasks, spending time in stock rooms, working in some Bata shops, working in the payroll office and in the costing department.
I’m not sure how much the foremen in the factory welcomed the college boys to their particular conveyor belts. Certainly, they must have sighed heavily when they saw me coming. I remember one day being asked to spray a light coating of liquid polish onto almost-finished shoes before they went into a heating tunnel to dry prior to finishing and packing. Well, I started to get worried when I couldn’t keep up with the shoes going past on the conveyor belt. There must have been many pairs where only the right or left shoe in a pair got sprayed and some pairs not all all! After half an hour or so, I was really disappointed when, with some rather indelicate fruity language from the foreman, I was told that Bata’s were not making patent leather shoes that day and would I take it slightly more easily on the spray! On another occasion, I was asked to thread the laces through the eyelets and make a tidy knot as the shoes went past on their merry way. Fortunately, I only lasted about 30 minutes on that particular task. I suspect there was some poor soul in quality control who spent the rest of the day unpicking my tangled knots and re-threading laces correctly!
There were many times when I asked myself “What on earth does this have to do with becoming an accountant?”. However, later as my career progressed, I began to realise how invaluable the training and work experience I received at Bata’s really was.
Every night back at the college on the estate, the college boys had to write up what they had learnt in a large green hardback “Wellington” book. Eventually, in my case, this would be used as supporting evidence of training and work experience when applying to become a full member of the Accounting institute.
I got to know many people around the factory and made many friends during this time. Although it was hard work, it really taught me how to handle tough situations, how people react when they are well managed and even more importantly when they are not!
The cost to Bata's of training 12 new college lads every year for three years must have been enormous and would clearly only pay off if, once qualified, the students stayed with Bata's for a certain length of time in a suitable position. We all had to sign 3 year post-training contracts but I think I was one of only two in my year to stick to this. The other one was Mike Middleton, who later went on to become a very senior director at Bata International level. After leaving East Tilbury, he went to Bata Rhodesia as their Chief Accountant.
I really enjoyed my time at the Bata College and made some good friends. When I first arrived, for about two weeks, I was very homesick but my room mate, Frank, helped me through it. Once I had got stuck into working in the factory and going to college, there was so much to see, learn and get involved in that it soon disappeared.
The college was run by Denis Bacon, the Principal, and there were several rules to adhere to. The doors were locked at 10:00pm during the week so we all had to be back in by then. As we had to be up early to start work at 7:30 the next morning, that was a good idea, although it sometimes played havoc with our social lives! I'm sure "Mr Bacon" knew we had a couple of ways in that he wasn't supposed to know about. These included drainpipes and first floor windows!
Sadly, Mr Bacon died very suddenly after a stroke. It was a great shock to us all. He had a lovely way of looking after / watching over the college lads, being a cross between a proper guardian, friendly uncle and senior housemaster. He had got it just right!
I have always loved music and the late 60s was a great time to live away from home and live in a college. I bought my first "stereo" system there and was able to turn it up nice and loud once the study periods were over. One of the college boys, Richard Merritt, was always playing the piano, something I liked to do too. However, while I was only able to tinkle around, Richard was playing everything from pop songs to Beethoven at a very high standard. We really enjoyed all sorts of music and through this time we formed a great friendship. We roomed together in my second year during which time Richard introduced me to a much broader range of classical music than I had previously enjoyed, while he may have heard a bit of folk music or progressive rock played by me that he might otherwise have missed! We were such great friends that Richard and I were best man for each other's wedding. Richard played the organ at St Catherine's church in East Tilbury while I played the organ (harmonium/electric organ) at East Tilbury and Linford Methodist churches. We often walked for miles as the countryside around East Tilbury was surprisingly lovely and varied. The walk round the typical Essex country lanes from Linford to West Tilbury, Low Street and East Tilbury village and back to the Bata Estate was a favourite, as was a walk round the sea-wall from Coalhouse Fort to Mucking and then back along paths to Gobion's Farm and East Tilbury station.
I met my future wife, Irene Bailey, during my time at the college. Her father, the late Frank Bailey, was an engineer in the Leather factory and they lived in Thomas Bata Avenue. The college organised a carol singing evening for charity, starting in The Ship in East Tilbury, and then working our way around the village. We advertised it quite heavily and we were lucky to attract a number of people to come along and sing with us. Irene was one of those - she had a lovely voice and so it wasn't long before I was standing next to her. We've just celebrated our Ruby wedding anniversary!
On completion of the course, College Boys moved into rooms in the Bata Hotel. My first room was overlooking the car park at the front. However, after a while, I managed to get a room on the top floor overlooking the fields and river. The sight of huge ships moving along the Thames was terrific, especially when the mist hung over the fields in between - it looked as though the boats were floating through the air! This was in the days before the Fairview Estate was built.
Things were a lot different in the late 60s and early 70s when compared with today. First names were not used. My immediate bosses were Mr Cermak, the Chief Accountant, and above him the Finance Director, Mr Kutik, also known as “Sir”. In the office, the men were expected to wear dark suits, white or light plain shirts with a sober tie. It was unusual to be able to take your jackets off too. Also, in those days, beards and long hair were frowned upon within the offices at Bata. I’m afraid I was a bit of a rebel. Irene and I used to do a bit of folk singing about this time and we were “weekend hippies”.
My first main role at Bata’s once I had graduated from the College was as Assistant to the Chief Accountant, Mr Cermak. This was excellent experience for me again as I learnt the basic practicalities of being an accountant. After a while, I was given the opportunity to become Chief Accountant for Hampton Bros, a subsidiary company of Bata’s that made football boots, based near Dudley in the Midlands. It too was a great experience as I learnt how a company works from start to finish - all the basic business operations and procedures, including purchasing raw materials, production processes, stock control, payroll, HR, book-keeping and sales.
I was asked to lead the financial aspects of a number of key projects such as converting all Bata’s accounting systems to decimal currency in 1971 and replacing purchase tax with VAT in 1973. This latter was made more difficult due to the complicated rules around differentiating between shoes for children and adults, safety shoes and boots. My biggest project related to introducing the first financial computer system into Bata’s for the sales ledger or “accounts receivable” area. This latter project had a great impact on the rest of my career as, subsequently, I brought together accountancy and financial management with computer systems implementation experience to help organisations across the world derive significant benefits from the information this can provide and the savings and efficiencies that can be gained.
Other aspects of my work at Bata’s were more seasonal and I remember travelling to Cumnock and Hampton Bros to carry out stocktaking on New Year’s Eve and missing out on some parties as a result. However, on many of these stocktaking journeys, I went with Fred Cubbage, and he was always great fun to be with. My wife and I kept up our friendship with Fred and his wife, Pat, for many years.
Irene and I got married in 1973 and it involved quite a few people who worked at Bata’s. Apart from Irene’s father from the Engineers (who gave her away!), the Printing Department printed our wedding invitations, Ken Clarke took the photos.
Interestingly, we got married on the same day as Judith Warrington and Ian Roberts, another Bata College boy. In fact, Ian and I enjoyed a joint stag do at the Ship in East Tilbury village. Ian and Judith got married at St Catherine’s Church in the village. Irene and I got married in the Methodist Church in Stanford-le-Hope. We were really pleased to hear that Judith and Ian also celebrated their Ruby wedding anniversary earlier this year!
I have always had a soft spot for Bata’s and East Tilbury. It’s fantastic that the Estate and Factory have been designated as a conservation area. Preserving the social history of the Bata community and the “modern movement” architecture is important.
Bata’s has had a huge impact on my life. The training and experience of the years I worked for Bata’s served me very well throughout my career. After leaving Bata’s in late 1973, I went on to work as a Management Accountant at Roneo Vickers and became Chief Accountant of their mailroom division, Roneo Neopost. I became Financial Accountant for Barnardo’s, the famous children’s charity, and then moved back into the fashion industry becoming the Chief Accountant at Falmer Jeans, then by my mid thirties, Finance Director of Quality Shoes and three other companies within the FII plc group. I then became a Management Consultant with and subsequently a Director of KPMG, one of the top five Accountants and Consultants in the world. Before I retired, I continued doing similar sort of work for charities, the RNID (Finance Director) and then Action for Children (Programme Manager).
This year, as part of our Ruby wedding anniversary celebrations, Irene and I had a lovely holiday in Canada. We took the opportunity to visit the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, which was established by Sonja Bata, widow of Thomas Bata Jnr. Apart from seeing shoes worn by John Lennon, Elizabeth Taylor and many other stars, it was a fascinating insight into the history of shoes and their designs around the world. We had a wonderful surprise at the end of our visit when Sonja Bata herself came into the reception area of the museum and we were introduced to her. Although she had a meeting to go to, she stopped and talked to us for quite a while about our respective experiences and life at Bata’s and in East Tilbury. She made a point of saying how important she thought the work at the Bata Reminiscence and Resources Centre was and how much she valued the work of all the volunteers involved.