Ingvar Kamprad began with two empty hands but has become one of the richest people in the world. Sole owner of the furniture chain store IKEA, Kamprad seems set to lead his business way past the age of 85.
Ingvar Kamprad as a young boy (left). Photo: IKEA
Ingvar Feodor Kamprad was born on March 30, 1926, on a small farm called Elmtaryd near the village of Agunnaryd, in the Swedish province of Småland. To most present-day Swedes, the date and the names, in a famously rural region, resound of harsher times, when Sweden was agrarian and poor. They speak of hard work, frugality and egalitarianism rooted in shared poverty — values which would eventually enter the IKEA ethos.
Kamprad began his career at the age of six, selling matches. When just ten, he criss-crossed the neighborhood on his bicycle, selling Christmas decorations, fish and pencils.
At 17, in 1943, Kamprad’s father rewarded him with a small sum of money for doing well in school, despite being dyslexic. With it, Ingvar founded a business named IKEA, an abbreviation for Ingvar Kamprad from Elmtaryd, Agunnaryd, his boyhood home.
Shaping IKEA’s flat-pack concept
Two years after starting IKEA, Kamprad began using milk trucks to deliver his goods. In 1947, he started selling furniture made by local manufacturers. By 1955, manufacturers began boycotting IKEA, protesting against Kamprad’s low prices. This forced him to design items in-house.
Furniture in flat packs — one of IKEA's keys to success. Photo: IKEA
Kamprad also began selling IKEA products in the famous flat-pack form, from his own warehouses. Thus the basic IKEA concept — simple, affordable flat-pack furniture, designed, distributed and sold in-house — was complete.
The driving idea behind IKEA was, and is, that anyone should be able to afford stylish, modernist furniture. Kamprad felt he was not just cutting costs and making money, but serving the people as well.
Kamprad’s business grew. And grew. IKEA expanded throughout Sweden, to Norway and Denmark, via Germany to continental Europe, and on to the ends of the world. When IKEA opened in Shanghai, 80,000 people visited the store. In March 2011 there are 321 IKEA stores in 38 countries. All this time, Kamprad has never borrowed money, never issued a stock and remains in full control of the company.
Ingvar Kamprad at the opening of the first IKEA store in Swedish Älmhult. Photo: IKEA
Are the anecdotes true?
Anecdotes about Kamprad abound. When his father complained that Ingvar slept late in the morning, Ingvar got himself an alarm clock, set it for six o’clock, and yanked away the off button. According to Kamprad, we should all divide our lives “into 10-minute units, and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.”
Though past 80, Kamprad still travels the world to visit new IKEA stores. He flies economy class, calls his employees “co-workers,” encourages everyone to dress informally, stays in cheap hotels and even replaces bottles from the hotel room mini-bar with cheap bottles bought in local supermarkets. He drives an old Volvo. He gives no interviews.
Ingvar Kamprad still makes personal visits to IKEA stores on a regular basis. Photo: IKEA
Critics of these stories say they seem intended to reinforce the company’s no-nonsense brand and encourage cost-awareness among company staff. They point out that Kamprad may be the world’s richest man, that owns several lavish houses around the world, and that it would be ludicrous to assume a man of such wealth would not use any of it for private purposes.
At the top of the rich list
IKEA’s elaborate ownership structure, with several off-shore trust funds controlled but not strictly owned by Kamprad himself, makes it impossible to establish just how rich he is, but estimates frequently put Kamprad between number 1 and number 11 on the world rich list.
IKEA has dodged anti-corporate sentiments remarkably well. Few allegations of poor labor practices, bad environmental policies or arrogant customer service have tarnished the brand name.
Nor has Kamprad’s own story flecked the company — even though Kamprad has openly admitted to having held Nazi sentiments as a young man.
Kamprad’s Nazi past
From 16 to 25, Kamprad was a friend and follower of Per Engdahl, the leader of the quasi-fascist, pro-Nazi Neo-Swedish movement. Engdahl attended Kamprad's first wedding in 1950. Kamprad only terminated his involvement in 1951.
When the scandal broke in the early 1990s, Kamprad wrote to his employees:
“You have been young yourself. And perhaps you find something in your youth you now, so long afterwards, think was ridiculous and stupid. In that case, you will understand me better.”
He also apologized in a television interview and said he had not fully understood what the Neo-Swedish movement was about.
IKEA's yellow sign on a blue façade can be seen all around the world. Photo: IKEA
Room for further expansion
Kamprad has been married twice. In his first marriage, to Kerstin Wadling, he adopted a daughter, Annika Kihlbom. In the other, to Margaretha Stennert, he has three sons: Peter, Jonas and Mathias.
The three sons are expected to succeed their father.
After all, so far only a quarter of the world’s nations have access to an IKEA store.
Jonas Fredén is a Swedish journalist with a passionate interest in all things entrepreneurial, and the greatest Swedish entrepreneur yet in particular. He sleeps in an IKEA Sultan bed.
The author alone is responsible for the opinions expressed in this article.
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