Since the 1950s, Bata has been a household name in Sri Lanka and has earned its reputation for excellence in footwear. Its success over the past 73 years can be measured by the fact that Sri Lankans have come to refer to rubber slippers of any brand as “Bata Slippers” or simply “Bata.”
The company has grown over the past seven decades after having started off with just one retail outlet at Main Street, Pettah, in 1950. Today, it has outlets in many parts of the country as well as a large manufacturing facility at Ratmalana located next to the airport.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing however, notes Clive Rodrigo, Bata Shoe Company of Sri Lanka’s Managing Director / Country Manager. When he joined the company as Finance Director in 2017, the company “was not in good shape.” At the time, the company was going through many financial difficulties and had been making losses. “It was a big challenge for me to handle finance at that time, but we managed it through careful decision-making,” he noted.
In 2019, Mr Rodrigo was promoted and asked to take over as Managing Director and Country Head. Fresh challenges came almost immediately, first with the Easter Sunday terror attacks and then the COVID pandemic. “Business was highly affected, with the retail sector being especially down,” he said. A further blow came with the country’s unprecedented economic crisis. “Yet through well-crafted decisions and strategies, we managed to turn the situation around, with the company starting to make a profit from 2021 onwards. Then we managed to settle all our bank overdrafts and bank facilities. Even today, the company is operating as a profitable and sustainable operation with zero levels of overdrafts and banking facilities,” he emphasised.
Meanwhile, Bata’s parent company wanted to change the business model taking into account the size of its operations. As part of this operating model, the company wanted its Sri Lankan arm to be converted into a 100% franchise operation. Accordingly, in September, 2023, Softlogic Retail Holdings Ltd., a subsidiary of Softlogic Holdings PLC, acquired a 100% stake in the company, giving them manufacturing license and distribution rights and the exclusive retail rights for Bata and Bata products in Sri Lanka.
Since their acquisition of Bata, Softlogic Chairman Ashok Pathirage, together with the new Board of Directors appointed by the company, have been laying plans to take Bata Shoe Company to the next level, said Mr Rodrigo. “We were the market leader in footwear at one time and we want to regain that position within a very short period.”
The company is now laying the groundwork for a very aggressive expansion in its retail operations to cover most of the uncovered areas where it sees a lot of potential for the Bata brand and Bata footwear, Mr Rodrigo added.
“We want to increase the number of our outlets at least by another 50 in the next one to two years. We are also looking at recapturing our wholesale business which is also one of the biggest areas that we can generate sales. Next on the pipeline is reengineering our production facilities, so we are looking at investing in a bigger way in machineries that will be required for production by bringing in state-of-the-art facilities,” he further elaborated.
“We will also be focusing on repositioning our product. At the moment, we are mostly focusing on middle income categories. We are now focusing on targeting the upper middle and top-end income categories as well. For that, we will be coming out with some new product development and for that we will also be getting the support from our sister company – Bata Singapore and all other Bata companies,” said the MD / Country Manager, explaining what’s next in store for the company.
Bata also plans to renovate its stores with a clear plan to offer a better customer experience. The goal is to increase the number of outlets to 150. The company also wants to expand on its “Store-Within-A-Store” model. Over the past 1 ½ months, it has expanded such stores inside Odel malls. “We are already in some Glomark Supermarkets. We are trying to cover more Glomark Supermarkets to increase our presence,” he revealed.
Bata currently has a total workforce of about 450 employees under direct and indirect employment. “Once we start this (expansion) process and our business model is properly aligned, we will give employment to more people,” Mr Rodrigo stressed.
In terms of footfall, he acknowledged there is a drop in the entire industry, but there are signs that it is gradually recovering. Bata’s footfall too dropped by 20-30% before the acquisition. However, the company has been able to do 30% more business compared to last year in terms of sales performance.
The future is extremely promising, said Mr Rodrigo. “Bata is the Number 1 brand in Sri Lanka even now. When people go to competitor stores to buy a pair of rubber slippers, they look to buy Bata slippers. It is very much a household brand,” he pointed out. In terms of brand awareness and brand equity, Bata still has bigger brand equity than any other brand in Sri Lanka. That is one of the key positive factors and opportunities that the company has to regain its position and even to be Number 1 in a very short period of time, he concluded.